Can Clinical Education Make New Lawyers Useful?

law-school-practical-skills

If all lawyers need to succeed are smarts and a little experience, then clinics would seem to be the answer. The Clinical Legal Education Association agrees, unsurprisingly, and has petitioned the ABA to add 15 hours of practice-based instructions to the required law school curriculum.

At first, the push to train lawyers in practical skills makes sense. On reflection, what is it that makes us think a few hours of “practical skills instruction” every week is going to turn new lawyers into useful lawyers?

Perhaps the most-important thing I learned after law school was that my smarts, talents, and hard work were not enough on their own to make me an effective lawyer. Nor were the legal writing, moot court, and criminal prosecution and defense clinics I took. Real law practice experience and reputation are impossible to pick up in law school. Yes, clinical instruction is a kind of practical experience, but it is certainly not enough, and definitely not all of the right kind.

Further, even if we assume law schools are competent to train law students to be competent as new lawyers, how can we be confident that law schools will train lawyers to work with the lawyers that hire them? Every lawyer and practice and firm are different, and many probably want to train their own associates. Maybe that is why the ABA Journal observes that “law firms may not be as gung-ho about practice-readiness as they claim”. Which brings me back to a question I asked before: Why would law schools be any good at teaching law practice management?. Or real law-practice skills, for that matter?

Pretty much everyone — me included — thinks new lawyers are ill-equipped to practice law effectively. Many people also believe law school is part of the problem. Why, then, would the solution be to double-down on law schools by requiring them to teach practical skills when they have demonstrated no ability to do so effectively?

Maybe law schools don’t need to change; maybe we just need to reduce the role law schools play in legal education.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrnellophotography/3905957924/)

Law School, Lawyering Skills

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  • static

    Or maybe the better question is whether clinical education provides a better foundation than lack of clinical foundation, even if it’s not nearly sufficient to make a new lawyer “practice ready.” It certainly is more useful than Law and Basket Weaving.

  • Roy

    Law schools could be part of the solution, but ONLY if they hire real lawyers, i.e. lawyers who have experience practicing law. These professors would then have to be promoted based on how well they teach, not how well they write scholarly articles. Then it may have a fighting chance to succeed.

  • Jeffrey Taylor

    Nothing makes 3 years of law school more irrelevant than 6 weeks of bar prep.

    If law schools are going to survive, they have to figure out how to eliminate the “law school” and make it more like being a lawyer. Too many of my professors had zero experience with the practicalities of law, but were minutely consumed with irrelevant aspects of their practice specialties.

  • Wes Porter

    I agree with some of the post and comments. Practical skills in law school do not take the place of, or equate to, practice. However, having some foundation of basic skills and “real client” problem-solving during law school is better than not having it. The ABA proposal and the California (inevitable) requirements operate on that premise.

    You post and comment based upon your law school experience from a decade or more ago – your frame of reference is dated. Maybe not all schools, maybe not your schools, but the model and methodologies of law school have changed. Market pressures demand, and will continue to demand, real change. Check out the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers initiative and Law School 2.0 for examples.

    I teach and direct a skills training center at a law school following more than a decade of practice. My focus is on students and teaching first, scholarship second. You are welcome to discuss with me what we do at my school, in my programs and my classroom to learn how law school has changed some. I assure you that you would not be (as) “unimpressed” when working with one of my students – and they would more easily receive and assimilate your valuable on the job training once in practice. Take one on and see for self.