Last week I had lunch with a bunch of lawyers of different ages and experience levels. At some point, as it usually does, the conversation turned to the state of legal education in the U.S. To a person, every lawyer at the table (myself included) lamented the poor training law schools provide. To a person, every lawyer opined that law school does almost nothing to teach students how to practice law.
That observation has been repeated so many places and so many times that it has become accepted as gospel. And seems to be accepted that it can’t be changed. But think about what that means. You go three years of law school, accumulate thousands if not hundreds of thousands dollars of debt. When you graduate, you take an exam that’s supposed to test whether you are competent to practice law. But despite all this, you aren’t ready to do the job you have gone to school to presumably learn how to do. You have no training on how to earn a living or really how to do anything. And you have to pay off your debt. WTF???
(Of course, I realize that the assumption that baby lawyers don’t know how to do anything can be questioned. Given how the profession works, it’s probably valid to ask if young lawyers really don’t know how to do anything. Or whether they just don’t know how to do things like us older lawyers have always don’t them. But that’s for another day. For present purposes, I’m not going to challenge the prevailing assumptions).
Firms and in-house departments seem to accept that new lawyer hires don’t know how to do much of anything. Some clients have even gone so far as to refuse to pay for work done by first-year associates. After they have been in school for three years.
Something is wrong with this picture. We desperately need to have practical, hands-on experience added to the law school curriculum. To become a doctor, you have to do an internship and get hands-on experience. To become a teacher, you have to do an internship in a classroom actually teaching. Many state Accountancy Boards require applicants to obtain a certain amount of professional work experience under the direct supervision of a licensed CPA.
It’s little wonder that law professors and administrators don’t demand student get some practical experience before graduation. First many of them never practiced themselves so don’t see the value. Second, law professors,like most college professors, have no formal training to teach or practical experience teaching before they begin. Again, hard for them to see value of something they never had themselves.
Law students toil away for three years, mostly learning stuff that practicing lawyers think doesn’t help them earn a living. Then they are tested on things that have little to nothing to do with practice
But law students toil away for three years, mostly learning stuff that practicing lawyers think doesn’t help them earn a living. Then they are tested on things that have little to nothing to do with practice.
Several years ago, I was on the board of a local parochial high school. The school was interested in providing its upper-level students with some real practical work experience. The leadership went to local businesses and asked their representatives to accept students as interns for a semester or two. The businesses, of course, got the services of the intern without cost. The school, in turn, gave the intern students credits toward graduation. Lots of buy-in from business, lots of practical, real-life experience for students. A win-win situation.
Most law students spend their first year scared to death, their second year settling in and taking some electives, and their third year bored to death
Why couldn’t the same thing work for law schools? After all, most law students spend their first year scared to death, their second year settling in and taking some electives, and their third year bored to death. (And, to be sure, some law students get a taste of what law practice is like through summer associate programs. But that’s hit or miss: some do, and some don’t. Plus, many summer associates programs are designed to recruit and impress, not teach and learn).
So why not take that third year and use it for real practical experience? Law students could see what the practice is like, which would help them to quick-start their practice when they got out. And decide what they really wanted to do post-graduation. They could be assigned based on the areas in which they think they may want to practice. This process would prepare them and help them decide if that area is one to which they really want to devote themselves.
Like my high school, law schools could provide interns to law firms without cost, and the students would get credits for the internship. And now is a good time for this. Given the great talent shortage and exponential growth in legal work going on right now, law firms would get some needed help. Students would start getting prepared to be real lawyers.
Or we could just keep on lamenting the fact that law schools don’t train students to be lawyers. And students could just keep racking up debt to learn something that is of little real value.
Sounds par for the course for the profession, doesn’t it?