Thoughts on Practical Legal Education II

Recently, Patrick G. Lee of The Wall Street Journal remarked upon an increasing trend: law schools dedicating their curricular efforts to practical legal education. The tone of the article suggested that this was a new development and that law schools were now in the process of adapting their curriculum to add more practical components for the benefit of their graduates.  Lee writes:

Looking to attract employers’ attention, some law schools are throwing out decades of tradition by replacing textbook courses with classes that teach more practical skills.

“Law firms are saying, ‘You’re sending us people who are not in a position to do anything useful for clients.’ This is a first effort to try and fix that,” says Larry Kramer, the law dean at Stanford.

The moves come amid a prolonged downturn in the legal job market. Only about one-quarter of last year’s graduating law-school classes—down from 33% in 2009—snagged positions with big law firms, according to the National Association for Law Placement, an organization that collects employment data.

In past years, a law firm could bill clients for a new lawyer’s work, even if that time were spent getting the novice up to speed. During the recession, corporate clients started limiting the number of hours a firm could charge and made it a policy not to pay for first-year associates, explains Don Liu, general counsel for Xerox Corp.

However, as we have previously discussed on this site, this is a familiar issue and one which other institutions addressed long ago. Of course, under the traditional model, the burden of instilling legal skills now falls upon the licensing agencies – which sometimes require new graduates to complete practical CLEs before or shortly after being sworn in to the bar – or law firms themselves, which much dedicate their own resources to teach new associates the most basic legal practical skills. But why is this? Is there a reason not to require a law student to enroll in a course on discovery? Even if that student does not plan to litigate, isn’t a basic understanding of discovery – including the drafting of both discovery itself and discovery responses – appropriate? But it’s not just about discovery. Can it be that students are graduating from law school without an understanding of the practical mechanics of how to file a complaint at the courthouse, or use e-filing? What about trial advocacy, or even arbitration and mediation practice? Are these forlorn topics in today’s curriculum?

As we wrote last November:

[L]aw school administrators should consider more dramatic changes in the law school paradigm. The second and third years can be transformed into true opportunities to learn practical legal skills (as well as everyday ethical issues and the business of law). State bars should be confident that students graduating from accredited institutions have been properly trained both in the nature of substantive law and legal thinking but also practical skills that will be employed on a daily basis as lawyers. Last but not least, law students are consumers of legal education. If we expect them to spend three years of their lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars to enter our profession, there should be no gap to bridge upon graduation.

Another question: Why is it that a decision by law schools to engage in practical training is still news worthy? That simply shouldn’t be the case. In this day and age, when graduates are entering into an uncertain job market and arriving to the profession with significant and sometimes crippling debt, they should at least be equipped with practical legal skills. (Being able to cite the facts of a bunch of King’s Bench cases won’t pay the bills). This is not a difficult concept. Law schools require few courses during students’ second and third years; thus, it would be relatively easy to add required practical courses. While that may interfere with students’ pursuits of golf outings or interesting electives, practical legal training is something that law students need.