Quick: What do you think of when people mention law school?
Usually, two things come to mind: A lot of reading, and a lot of writing.
Just as important, however, is the ability to communicate with all the stakeholders in a legal matter, everyone from clients to opposing counsel to judges. Also important is learning how to form the subchapter S corporation you learned about in Corporations or draft a contract to protect the copyrightable material you learned about in Intellectual Property.
Getting experience in these practical matters, necessary to the application of law in the real world, is essential to a future lawyer’s competency in practice. But it’s also important to maintaining civility in the profession. Here’s why.
Hands-on training crucial
As far back as 1992, the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar published the Report of the Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap. It emphasized the value of practice-oriented instruction that includes clinics, externships, and simulations. The report also noted the utility of part-time employment during the academic year to supplement classroom instruction.
Furthermore, many commentators have endorsed universal clinical education. The State Bar of California’s Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform argued in a 2013 report that all students should be required during their third year of law school to participate in externship courses or in-house clinics in which students represent clients or participate in the work of lawyers and judges, not just observe it.
Why is experiential training so important? According to a 2010 ABA study, such programs focus concretely on the skills it takes to be a good lawyer typically not covered in law school. Those include problem solving, exercising good judgment, client relations, time management, communication, and the ability to see and understand opposing points of view.
Perhaps more importantly, however, that same 2013 report from the California bar argued that such programs involve orientation in the values of professionalism. It added that some aspects of professionalism, such as honesty; integrity; and respect for clients, other attorneys, and the courts, can be addressed.
I’m a believer
I can honestly say that my experience in practical settings has shaped who I am as a professional. In my time in law school, I’ve worked for two different judges and law firms.
That’s given me valuable insight not only into the practice of the areas of law I focus on in school, but also the relationship dynamics, business demands, and values of the profession. I learned about three important things:
1. Respect and cooperation
From working in practice settings, I learned about the need for respect and cooperation when dealing with all parties related to a matter. Besides making things easier, it’s consistent with the fiduciary duty you owe to your client to handle matters in the most efficient and effective way possible. This is hard to conceptualize in law school, where competition is fostered over collaboration through things like ranking systems and grading curves.
The truth is that whether it comes down to negotiations with other parties in the transactional setting or discovery requests in adversarial proceedings, respect and cooperation with all parties saves the client’s two most valuable resources—money and time. This pertains to communication with opposing counsel, witnesses, and even members of your own firm.
2. Real-world demands
I was able to learn about the business demands of a practice, particularly the need for time management. I remember my first research assignment as a legal extern in a law office. I’d been asked to prepare a memorandum for a minor issue in a legal matter and was excited to show off what I’d learned in my legal practice class the year prior.
The difference between legal practice and real world assignments, however, is that I had days to complete my legal practice memo and a short period of time to give the attorney I was working for an answer. I ended up spending an unnecessary amount of time outlining the insignificant details of case law in a multiple-page document, when the attorney needed a brief, direct answer to a legal question—one the client could understand.
When you work in the field, you learn how to be an effective lawyer. A practical setting is the only place where you can learn to balance completing work in a time-efficient manner while being confident you’re giving your client the right answer.
3. Legal values
I gained a sense of the values of the profession. Particularly after interning in the Federal Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, I gained a deep respect for the judicial system and our roles as advocates and representatives of the clients we serve.
During the internship, I was able to sit through a criminal trial for a happening that took place in West Philadelphia. The perspective I gained was invaluable, from witnessing the mechanics of criminal proceedings in action to the workings of the public defender system to the relationship dynamics among all the stakeholders in the case.
Having the opportunity to devote my time to such a system also gave me a sense of the importance of pro-bono work, serving the communities we so greatly impact.
Pushing for more
What can we do to ensure that students, schools, and state bars are proactive about students’ involvement in practical training?
The answer lies in advocating for more requirements or alternatives that give students the opportunity to participate in experiential learning. We can accomplish this by:
- Heightening the requirements for experiential credits in law school curriculum
- Mandating pro-bono service as a condition for licensure, and
- Allowing students to sit for the bar earlier in exchange for a certain amount of pro bono service
The ABA recently began requiring six credits of experiential credits—clinics, simulation courses, law firm or agency placements, and other opportunities to gain credit for practice-oriented work.
Although that’s a good start, I don’t believe this policy goes far enough. Based on a survey of law schools that require or guarantee experiential education, a recent study by Karen Tokarz, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, Peggy Maisel, and Robert Seibel concluded:
The State Bar of California has recommended that schools require 15 experiential credits for licensure to the bar, to be completed in the second and third years of law school. This would keep intact the structure of law students’ first-year doctrinal study while adequately preparing law students to transition into the workplace once they graduate.
In 2013, Jonathan Lippman, New York’s former chief judge of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, instituted a policy requiring prospective attorneys to perform 50 hours of pro bono service before admission to the bar. Such a requirement achieves three important goals:
- Helping prospective attorneys build practical skills
- Addressing the access to justice gap
- Instilling the value of pro bono and service among prospective attorneys
As Lipmann put it:
There’s no better way to instill civility in the legal profession than by ensuring that prospective lawyers perform real-world, practical work for those who need legal services most.
Finally, on a similar note, during his term, Lippman also offered an incentive to promote practical experience through pro bono work—taking the bar a semester early. The New York Pro Bono Scholars program allows law students to take the February bar if they perform 500 hours of pro bono service between the February bar and mid-May, when other students finish their third year of law school.
In addition to those points in favor of law students performing pro bono service, offering recent graduates the opportunity to obtain such significant amounts of practical experience would make them more practice ready.
In Massachusetts, a task force on the law, the economy, and underemployment released a report exploring the causes of and solutions for underemployment of law school graduates. Their proposed solution was to restructure law students’ third years into a legal residency similar to that of the medical profession, where students alternate quarters as either full-time students or as full-time legal interns in real-world cooperative positions.
The result would be students best able to appreciate the needs and expectations of employers, and they would be further empowered to consider employment opportunities that are ideally suited for their interests and skill sets.
A program such as the Pro Bono Scholars program in New York combines the Massachusetts’ task force recommendation with the intangible benefits law students gain from performing pro bono work.
Practical experience is necessary to prepare practice-ready graduates who are properly instilled with the values of the profession. With the unique perspective we bring as law students, it’s important for us to advocate for more opportunities and incentives for experiential training in law schools.