Make law school more pragmatic, report says

More law schools should develop and encourage “experiential learning,” giving students access to clinics, externships and the like in order to smooth the transition from education to full-time employment, a new report advises.

“[It] focuses heavily on training law students and lawyers in terms of lawyer competencies and learning outcomes,” said Patrick Nester, director of Professional Development for the State Bar of Texas. “If the … recommendations are implemented, they would, going forward, give legal education a decidedly more pragmatic and professional tilt, as compared to the more academic treatments historically emphasized by top law schools. One consequence is likely to be even more clinical programs presented in law schools and more focus on specific tasks and skills in CLE.”

Released in the spring, “Equipping Our Lawyers: Law School Education, Continuing Legal Education, and Legal Practice in the 21st Century” gives a complete picture of what those who provide – and use – continuing legal education want and need from all parts of the legal community.

The report was prepared jointly by the American Law Institute-American Bar Association Continuing Professional Education (ALI-ABA) and the Association for Continuing Legal Education (ACLEA).

The report says that providing a law school experience that helps prepare law students for the rigors of practice is essential to all parties, and one that is particularly important in light of the economic challenges currently facing the legal profession across all areas.

The two groups came together with legal educators and professionals in October 2009 during their Critical Issues Summit.

“If the Summit recommendations accurately reflect the direction of the profession – a direction largely driven by economic forces – law students will need to give more attention to considering specific concentrations earlier in their law school career,” Nester said.

The report recommends that the Bar examination be restructured from a one-time event to phased examinations over time, even as early as law school. This would allow fledgling attorneys to gain the experience and skills needed to excel on this all-important test.

Another key recommendation would be to bring law schools and CLE providers together to talk about ways to partner in career-long development. This would allow students to see that what they are learning in law school is the first step in becoming competent lawyers, the report notes. This recommendation emphasizes the importance of making lawyer education a true career-long continuum, rather than a disconnected landscape of only distantly related fiefdoms with few connected pathways or purposes,” the report states.

Additionally, those who work with continuing education also would want “appropriate” and updated accreditation standards, particularly for distance learning for experienced, working attorneys. This would provide strong guidelines, helping educators prepare lawyers near and far for any challenges.

To that end, the report asks law firms to be more open minded about the kinds of programs they offer, which would make them potentially more effective for the attorneys that use them.

By Karen Dybis for preLaw magazine and The National Jurist. This story is featured in the 2010 issue of Back to School preLaw (publishing Aug. 11) and the September issue of The National Jurist (publishing Aug. 24).