Should law students be required to complete 15 credits of practical skills coursework before they graduate?

The American Bar Association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar didn’t think so in August, when it tentatively endorsed a plan to require six credits of real-world training. Now the council has backtracked somewhat, agreeing to seek public comment on an alternative proposal to bump the requirement to 15 credits of clinics, simulation courses or externships.

The Dec. 6 decision revived a debate that appeared dead in August.

The council’s new tack—spearheaded by council member Jane Aiken, associate dean for clinical programs at Georgetown Law Center—was largely the work of the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), which has been pushing the 15-credit plan since July. The organization argues that the law lags behind medicine, dentistry and other professions when it come to real-world training.

“I think it’s really positive,” said Kate Kruse, CLEA’s president and director of clinics at Hamline University School of Law. “I think there is a movement out there—with California being a prime example of a state bar saying, ‘We don’t think what the ABA requires in terms of hand-on skills training is enough.’ I think the ABA is responding by trying to stay ahead of the curve instead of behind it.”

Still, collecting public comments about a 15-credit requirement doesn’t mean the council will adopt it. “I think the council believed that sending it out for comment to see what people think wouldn’t hurt anything,” said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director for accreditation and legal education.

“Some people could say that six is too many, and other could say that six is way too few,” he said. “But the council saw that 15 is substantially different from six, and if they ultimately decide 15 is right, they didn’t want to have to put it out for comment again.”

The council has been tracking a State Bar of California requirement that law students complete 15 hours of practical skills training, Currier said, although it’s still unclear how that new mandate will work. The California bar approved the rule in October and will phase it in starting in 2015.

The ABA has been updating its accreditation standards since 2008. The existing standards mandate that students take just one credit of experiential learning. The standards committee initially proposed increasing that to three credits, which CLEA called a “shockingly insignificant amount of skills training.”

Under CLEA’s proposed 15-hour mandate, students would take at least one class involving a live client. The council’s tentative proposal would not require students to take a clinic or live-client course.

“Fifteen credits is the equivalent of a semester of classes,” Kruse said. “Spending one semester out of three years is completely consistent with what other professions do.”

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