Today I spoke with Dean Lawrence Mitchell of Case Western Reserve University Law School about its new “client-ready” practical skills program. I wanted to know more about its program, and I especially wanted to hear why Dean Mitchell thought CWRU could avoid the the lackluster results Washington & Lee ran into when it tried something similar.
(Our connection wasn’t great, so if I’ve managed to misquote him, I’ll blame his cell phone.)
CWRU’s focus is on making its graduates “client-ready,” a term Dean Mitchell used repeatedly. I asked what students get to do that makes them ready to handle clients.
During the first year, students are supervised by lawyers at pro bono projects in Cleveland (where CWRU is based), mostly doing what sounds like client intake. Well-organized non-profits can make very good use of law students for intake, so this actually seems like a great fit. That’s a lot of students (CWRU’s 2012 class was 154), which means they could do a lot of good.
During the second year, the focus shifts to legal writing (CWRU’s curriculum includes 17 credits of writing-intensive courses) and “leadership training.”
In the third year, students will work full-time as lawyers for at least a semester, either in a clinic or externship. All the clinical professors are full-time teachers. Externships are with local law firms, which are not paid for their help. Dean Mitchell says most of them just want to help, but as a side benefit, the externship can serve as a sort of extended interview. If law firms are looking for associates, Dean Mitchell hopes they will just hire their externs, which he says has happened in previous externships the school offered.
Who the program is for
I asked Dean Mitchell whether the program is designed to find jobs for CWRU law school graduates, or whether he also hopes to better-prepare his students to go solo. He was candid, saying “historically, a very small percentage of our students go solo” and “at the tuition level we charge, it’s hard to go solo.” (He was careful to point out that, due to financial aid, most students don’t pay the full price.)
In other words, CWRU students will no doubt be pleased to know that Dean Mitchell is focused on finding jobs for his graduates, 2/3rds of which historically wind up getting hired outside of Ohio.
What if it doesn’t work?
Dean Mitchell didn’t think there was any evidence Washington & Lee’s employment numbers dropped because of its practical-skills curriculum, even though it’s numbers dropped more than the schools around it. But even thought there is a risk, Dean Mitchell says “this is the right thing to do for our students.”
But, I asked, how will this help students if the employers don’t come around? “We’re doing this because we think this is what students need.” But, he admits, if employers don’t respond positively, then maybe it is not what students need, after all. That’s the situation W&L found itself in, but Dean Mitchell says CWRU’s program is “different from W&L’s in many respects.” For example, W&L’s practical-skills course only kicks in during the third year. At CWRU, it goes through all 3 years. Maybe W&L’s program just didn’t go far enough.
Besides, Dean Mitchell says, CWRU’s program is hardly irreversible, if it does fail.