Should the American Bar Association require that all law students graduate with at least some practice skills training under their belts?
A group of clinical law professors thinks so. They have asked the ABA’s Counsel of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to amend its law school accreditation standards to require that students complete 15 credit hours of real-world lawyering coursework.
The Clinical Legal Education Association also asked that would-be lawyers complete at least one clinic or externship before they graduate.
In a letter to ABA officials, CLEA leaders wrote that legal education lags far behind other professions when it comes to hands-on training. Moreover, a national standard would likely prevent lawyer-licensing bodies in different states from adopting conflicting rules, they argued. The State Bar of California appears poised to adopt its own 15-credit practical skills training mandate later this year.
“We hope this will be an opportunity for the ABA to take a leadership role in pressing law schools to take seriously their responsibility to prepare students for the practice of law,” said CLEA president Kate Kruse, director of clinics at Hamline University School of Law.
Jeffrey Lewis, chairman of the ABA’s Standards Review Committee and a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, said the committee hasn’t discussed any new practical skills training mandates “of this magnitude” since he joined the group in late 2011.
The committee has since 2008 been drafting updates to the accreditation standards and has already proposed increasing the experiential learning requirement from the existing one credit to three. CLEA argued that wouldn’t go far enough.
Other professions—medicine, veterinary, dentistry and architecture—require that students spend a quarter or more of their studies in a clinical setting or field education courses. A 15-credit-hour requirement for law schools would account for about one-sixth of a student’s coursework.
“Judged against other professions, CLEA’s request to require 15 law school units in law clinics, field placements, or simulated practical skills courses is a modest and critical step toward achieving in legal education the level of professional experience required in the education of other licensed professions,” CLEA’s leaders wrote.
One of the most common arguments against mandating clinics and experiential courses is their cost; such courses tend to accommodate fewer students and require more faculty supervision. But CLEA maintains that they can be run in a cost-effective way; it cited the recent overhaul of the third-year curriculum at Washington & Lee University School of Law to be entirely skills-focused.
CLEA also pointed to relatively low tuition at the City University of New York School of Law and the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, both of which have clinic requirements. A CLEA analysis of law schools that either require students to complete a clinic or guarantee students a spot in a clinic found no statistically significant difference in tuition.
Any move by the ABA to adopt a practical skills requirement would likely meet opposition from law school administrators. Law deans in California have expressed concerns about the state bar’s plan to require 15 hours of practical skills training on the ground that it could stifle curricular innovation and hamstring students into taking courses against their choosing.
Law schools already offer more real-world training than ever before without the intervention of regulators, some California deans have argued.