I saw this headline, ABA Urges Law Schools to Adopt More Practical Training for Students, on the American Bar Association Journal homepage and it hit home. As a fairly new attorney, close to three years practicing now, it is something I’ve thought about from time to time. Below, a key passage from the short story and then my thoughts on the matter:
“Many new lawyers come out of law school never having drafted a complaint; never having seen a contract; never having interacted with a client, much less an adverse witness,” said former New York State Bar Association President Stephen Younger. However, those same lawyers, in increasing numbers, are hanging their shingles as solo practitioners. “It is a real ticking time-bomb for our profession,” Younger said.
I went to Michigan State University College of Law, not a top tier law school, but, certainly rising. Do I think they did a good job in preparing me for life as a solo practitioner?
Yes and No.
No in the sense that most of the things I’ve learned that I use constantly in my practice I did not directly learn in Law School. In Law School I never stood in front of a Judge and took a plea, or argued a sentencing.
Yes in the sense that a lot of what I learned in Law School has indirectly prepared me for how to handle those moments.
I think one of the tricky areas for Law School in preparing students from a practical perspective is that actual practice is all over the place. The moments in Law School that I can remember as attempting to serve as practical training mainly just came off as goofy. That doesn’t hold for everything that I did in Law School that was designed as “practical.” But, I think my overall point is valid.
One of the things that I feel like I do best as a solo practitioner is interaction with clients. And unless clients are just trying to boost my ego, it is also the compliment I hear the most, although, I assume clients will start complimenting the hell out of this shark poster I just got for my office. I don’t think I had many moments in Law School that were designed to learn client interaction. Do I feel as if my law school experience overall has helped prepare me for these moments? Absolutely. If you don’t know the proper questions to ask your client or the proper information to give to your client, what are you going to accomplish? At some point, the ability to help your client in those aspects certainly comes from just knowing the law and having a wide range of experiences.
Are there things law schools can do differently? Of course. That’s always going to be the case no matter what they do. As for the ticking time-bomb remark, it seems a bit dramatic. But, I don’t know, I only have experience with one Law School. But, the bigger issue, aren’t the practical training hurdles the easy ones? For instance the paragraph I quote cites never having drafted a complaint, never interacted with a client or adverse witness. From a practical perspective, all of these things are easy to do.
The idea isn’t just to do them. The idea is to do them really, really well.
I had a class in Law School that was designed to to teach the trial/courtroom process. We got to do opening/closing arguments, question witnesses. The class was awful. There’s only so much manufactured mock-ness the class was able to get across. I’d imagine moot court competitions and the like might delve into it further and it might come across feeling real, but, this class setting just felt silly because we were basing everything on examples in a book and there’s only so much direction you can take a case in. Plus, a lot of time a lot of the thought process is still in the school-mode. For example, even in a practical setting, the analysis on something like objections was still by the book and not, will this evidence help me win the case.
This isn’t to say that all law school practical training falls short. I never took one, but the MSU College of Law clinic programs that my friends spoke to me about all seemed to provide benefits of a practical nature. And, whenever you’re actually getting students involved with real cases it’s going to wind up as great experience. But, that’s a given.
Getting back to not just being able to do these things from a practical perspective, but, doing them really well. That is the goal of law school at the end of the day, right? To get the most out of students, even if they don’t know it? If I feel comfortable in how I can analyze a case, find weaknesses and strengths and take it wherever it may go, the foundations of that are probably through law school as a whole, and not simply from practical training. There’s a balance to be found, and I think law schools should be able to make determination based on the needs of their students and alumni, and not the urging of the ABA.