By Dennis W. Archer
Dennis W. Archer is chairman emeritus for the law firm of Dickinson Wright. He is a past ABA president and State Bar of Michigan president. He served on the Michigan Supreme Court from 1986–1990 and was mayor of Detroit from 1994–2001.
At its core, the legal practice hasn’t changed much during my career. It still consists of research, writing, strategy, and hard work. However, one aspect that has changed is the way that new lawyers gain practical experience. In the 1970s, law students could graduate and expect to spend their first few years learning to practice under the supervision of employers who would provide hands-on training. New lawyers could get courtroom experience in their first year, and often that experience involved jury trials. For many reasons, including tort reform and a rise in the use of alternative dispute resolution, the number of trials has greatly declined. Today’s new lawyers may wait years before they get any meaningful courtroom experience.
The good news is that forward-thinking law schools are now preparing students to be experienced practitioners at graduation. The ABA and National Conference of Bar Presidents led the way to encourage law schools to produce practice-ready graduates. Clinical programs are the backbone to training such new lawyers. Law schools across the country are providing better hands-on training. Clinics are offered at virtually every ABA-approved law school and in nearly every conceivable area of law. Through clinical experiences and a solid legal foundation, law schools with the most student-centered educations essentially give their graduates two years of practice.
Clinical programs do not just produce better-equipped lawyers upon graduation. They also serve two other vital functions. First, clinics typically provide a public service to unrepresented or underrepresented segments of society. This helps those who need it most to have able, trained, and supervised student lawyers representing them. Legal proceedings are often an intimidating, confusing environment for litigants. A capable law student supported by practicing attorneys is a significant ally.
Second, clinical programs expose law students to pro bono service, and that exposure often leads to a continuing interest in pro bono service. Because of clinical experiences, many students pursue public interest careers or positions with law firms that encourage and support pro bono efforts. In interviews, it’s become common for prospective attorneys to ask about how my firm will support their pro bono ambitions. Clinics can thus serve as the foundation for career-long dedication to public service.
Looking back at my legal education, it isn’t as much what I wish that I’d known as what I wish I’d had the chance to take advantage of. Today’s students, more than any class before them, have an opportunity to make themselves better practicing lawyers upon completing their legal education. They can do so while benefiting society’s neediest. By taking this opportunity, today’s students will be better practitioners—and more impressive employment prospects. I wish that I’d had the same opportunity during law school.
Vol. 42 No. 2