Group pushes for practical training for law students

July 14, 2013

More than a thousand law professors are pushing the group that accredits the nation’s law schools to set stricter requirements for students to get hands-on training before graduating.

The Clinical Legal Education Association, a group of law teachers, is proposing that the American Bar Association’s Standards Review Committee — which makes recommendations to the section of the ABA that accredits law schools — require schools to mandate that students earn at least 15 credits of “experiential learning” before graduating. That can include any experience working with clients outside the classroom. The group’s proposal goes beyond a measure the committee is already considering, which would require law schools to mandate students earn three such credits.

The committee makes recommendations to the Council on the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. The council, which is a section of the ABA, is the official accrediting body that decides what standards law schools must meet.

The requirement is one of many potential changes to law school accreditation standards the committee is reviewing, said Barry Currier, managing director of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. The 2014-15 school year, he said, is the earliest a potential experiential learning requirement would take effect.

Many legal educators and attorneys have for years criticized law schools for not providing students with enough real-world training. Legal education lags behind other licensed fields such as medicine, dentistry and social work that require students to work with clients prior to earning their license, according to the proposal CLEA sent the ABA this month. Now that the legal industry is more competitive — the unemployment rate among 2012 graduates is nearly 13 percent, according to the National Association for Law Placement — some say the need for students to learn practical skills is more pressing than ever.

“Clients at large law firms are now saying they won’t pay for new associates to work on cases because they aren’t sufficiently trained on how to do the work when they graduate from law school,” said Deborah Epstein, a professor and former associate dean of clinical programs at Georgetown Law. “That’s not true of someone who’s graduated from medical school or social work because they’ve actually worked with a client. You can graduate from law school spending all your time in a classroom.”

Fifteen hours of professional experience would represent about one-sixth of the average law student’s total credits — still less than other professions that require between one-fourth and one half of total credits to be put toward professional practice, the CLEA proposal said.

Many law schools already provide real-world work opportunities through course-related internships with a practicing lawyer, called externships, and clinics, where students work directly with clients under the supervision of a professor. At Georgetown, for example, about 200 students every semester enroll in an externship program, Epstein said. Although the ABA standards require schools to provide training opportunities, they do not require a specific number of hours or credits to be met. Having a requirement that applies to all schools would ensure that students, regardless of where they go to school, will have had real-world training before entering the workforce, she said.

“A requirement is a really solid idea because at some schools, not all students have the opportunity to obtain that many credits in field work,” Epstein said. “[Opportunities] vary across law schools. Right now, lots of students don’t take advantage of experiential learning opportunities. Every single critic of the legal education system has said this is a problem. Most administrators at law schools acknowledge that we’re not yet doing a good enough job making sure students are exposed to experience-based learning opportunities.”

A task force within the State Bar of California has already floated a similar requirement for students to earn at least 15 credits of practical training before taking the California bar exam.

“If California pursues this, it creates unevenness among states,” said Kate Kruse, a law professor at Hamline University School of Law and president of CLEA. “The ABA is in a position to be a national leader and set national standards.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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