Are law schools equipped to provide the practical training the next generation of lawyers will need to succeed? Many hold the view that they are not, which is why legal education reform has become an important topic for the legal industry. Fed up with paying for the training of entry-level associates, many clients are now refusing to allow first year associates on their matters. This client pressure is pushing law firms to demand more practical skills training from law schools. One key issue is that law schools and many law school professors often remain shrouded in a purely academic environment, without a clear connection to the practical demands of private practice. And by practical, we refer not just to knowledge of legal procedures such as filing motions or conducting depositions. Law firms and their clients are looking for a working knowledge of how to apply legal concepts outside a classroom environment, to solve real-world problems.
Although law schools have made improvements in this area, giving their students hands-on experience through law clinics or shadowing programs, many within the industry retain the traditional view that a student can only really gain working knowledge of the law on the job. Under this view, law schools are limited in the amount of practical experience they can provide to their students.
Thus, a conundrum has developed: clients do not want to pay for the training of new lawyers on the job, but many practitioners declare that on-the-job training is the only way to gain the necessary practical experience. Law schools must find a way to respond to these seemingly competing demands, and to do so they will need to work directly with legal employers.
Last week, Peter Kalis, the Managing Partner of K&L Gates outlined his vision for legal education reform in the U.S. in The American Lawyer. His proposal outlined a number of key changes aimed at meeting the demand for more practical skills training of clients within the existing legal education structure of law school, including:
- A reduction of the current law school program. The law school course of education would run for five rather than six semesters, allowing students to graduate in December of their third year in readiness for entering the job market as of January 1st.
- Utilizing the intervening summer down-time between semesters for experience-based certification modules. Currently students undertake a range of summer positions, including summer associate positions, clerkships, or government internships. While law school career services departments generally assist student in obtaining summer employment, schools do not oversee summer programs or require that students obtain specific experience through outside employment. Kalis suggests that schools intervene in these relationships, providing oversight, uniformity and standardization among the vast array of different summer employers. Students would then gain law school credit for completion of these internship modules.
Based on the assumption that students would be better prepared for life inside a law firm if they undertook formally accredited practical training modules over the summer, and able to get up and running more quickly, the proposal provides a number of key advantages for each group:
- Students not only reduce their overall law school bill by being eligible to finish one semester earlier, but are also able to enter the job market six months earlier. Furthermore, they would benefit from a more practical understanding of the law, as well as having a better understanding of ‘realities’ of being a lawyer, before entering the job market.
- The burden on clients in terms of covering the cost of training graduates to actually practice law is reduced since the work of summer associates is largely written off by law firms. They would also benefit from more vocationally trained entry-level lawyers that have some field experience prior to being billed on a client’s work.
- Law schools can continue to focus on what they’re best at – providing a broad-based, rigorous training in the principles of legal theory, research and analysis. The practical side of the equation would instead be outsourced to employers who are better able to provide experiential training. The certification process would mean that control of legal education is retained within the bounds of law schools and would also provide the all important practical training at minimal additional cost.
- Although mentoring and training would be needed throughout a first year associate’s professional development, law firms (and other employers of law graduates) would benefit from incoming graduates being far better able to ‘hit the ground running’ and contribute to casework from the outset (relative to today). This should allow firms to charge-out first year time more easily.
Building strong ties between law schools and the legal employers of their graduates (law firms, corporate law departments, legal aid organizations and government employers), as well as developing an optimal accreditation process to oversee the new practical modules, are likely to be key if such a proposal is to be successful.
Ultimately, law schools will be outsourcing elements of their practical skills training to a variety of organizations and will need to apply some level of uniformity, standardization and input on what skills they are looking for their students to be developing during such practical modules, as well as their expectations for these organizations in providing this new practical skills avenue.
Peter Kalis’ vision of legal education reform is intriguing and raises a number of follow-on questions, such as how would the loss of a full semester of tuition affect law school budgets; how willing would law firms and other employers be in terms of formalizing summer or internship programs and allowing law school oversight; and how would students feel about having law school essentially become a year-round enterprise? However, it’s an enticing proposition as it moves the focus of practical training towards those best able to provide it whilst retaining it within the current structure of legal education. Most importantly, it provides ample benefits for all stakeholders.
Posted by Tricia Pelton