Case Western Law School Vows to Make Its Graduates “Client-Ready”

57/365 - Ready for Work

Read more on CWRU’s “client-ready” practical skills program, from my interview with Dean Lawrence Mitchell.

Case Western Reserve University School of Law is the latest to overhaul its curriculum to cater to what law firms say they want: young lawyers who can hit the ground running. From its FAQ on the changes, here is the gist of the overhaul:

The new academic model dramatically increases students’ writing requirements and opportunities for real, practical legal experience. The program calls for entering students to serve in the role of attorneys within their first semester and includes a third-year externship or clinical engagement that lasts at least a semester. The new curriculum also includes a required series of courses on leadership taught by faculty from the university’s Weatherhead School of Management[.]

And, from CWRU’s press release:

The goal is to graduate lawyers who are “client ready”—that is, able to take on substantial responsibilities with clients right away, rather than spend their initial post-graduate years in a much more limited or background role.

The point is, obviously, to make CWRU’s graduates more attractive to employers, but that was not particularly effective at Washington & Lee, which adopted a similar program. According to the ABA Journal, Washington & Lee was doing worse in hiring compared with similarly-ranked law schools after it adopted its practical skills program.

Why? Maybe “client-ready” associates really aren’t all that valuable. After all, who wants to turn their clients over to a young lawyer who will probably try to steal them and start a solo practice in a few years? Or, in fact, trust a new graduate with that kind of responsibility right away, in any case? Law firms do need some low-level associates to do the grunt work, after all, even if they need those associates to be a bit less low-level.

I still question whether law schools are well-equipped to teach students practical skills. Many law professors have little or no practical experience of their own. What practical experience will they draw on when teaching students? Maybe employers don’t yet trust law schools to adequately prepare law students to be “client-ready.”

It does look like CWRU plans to make use of externships, at least — presumably with practicing lawyers. That’s definitely a positive step, if the school is willing and able to make it worthwhile for the practicing lawyers. I hosted externs a few times for a local school, for free, and while it was kind of fun, it was in no way worthwhile for me. I can see the value of externships dropping fast if CWRU doesn’t hammer out some lasting partnerships.

But back to Washington & Lee, where the practical-skills program did turn out to be a rousing success in at least one respect: applications for admission soared after it started its practical skills program. And admissions are the lifeblood of law schools, after all. Is it possible that CWRU sees an opportunity to rise above its #68 ranking by keeping applications up in the face of dwindling numbers elsewhere? (Yes, it does seem possible.)

Even if that is the true goal, it’s not necessarily bad for CWRU students. Assuming CWRU really can prepare it’s graduates to be “client-ready” on Day One, that means they will have a huge advantage when it comes to starting a law firm. (Although it probably won’t be much help if they go into doc review.)

Despite my criticisms, I think that the sooner law schools start incorporating practical skills into their curricula, the better. I don’t want to see law school turn into trade school, but I don’t think it would hurt to have new graduates who at least have a clue about what to do with a client.

Law School, Lawyering Skills

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  • Brandon Reed

    I think the problem with Washington and Lee, which CWRU may also find is that law firms really aren’t that sophisticated in their hiring of graduates. More externships and practical skills courses should have enhanced the value of their graduates. Unfortunately class standing and US News Rank still dominate the hiring methodologies of Biglaw. They go recruit from nearly the same institutions year after year. Biglaw wants to see increased practical skills courses but from the institutions they normally recruit from, changing your curriculum won’t increase recruitment. Changing your US News ranking however might increase the law firms that come around.

  • Marshall

    Being a new lawyer, I remember these discussions at my law school. I have been through the corporate ranks prior to law school, and now have a small practice. Just like my undergrad never prepared me for a boardroom like my mentors did, so lawschool cannot make you client ready. Clients are really hard to be ready for, and nearly impossible to know. The balance of money, expectations, craziness, and lack of legal knowledge you cannot teach to a person, they have to have the experience and a wise mentor who can tell you, “time to let that one go and make sure they know you let them go.” School can never prepare you for the work like mentors can nor should it try. School is to lay a foundation, mentors and doing is to get you going.
    I think schools could benefit from hiring teachers who actually practice law though. The biggest shocker to me out of lawschool was that it was my job to educate the judge on the law and my case, versus having a professor who was all knowing and presenting it to them. Big difference.