NALP’s Findings on Experiential Learning and Law Practice

NALP recently posted its “2010 Survey of Law School Experiential Learning Opportunities and Benefits”.

Here is the executive summary.  Some of what is in the survey will be familiar or predictable to readers of this blog, but I think there are a few surprises as well:

Executive Summary

“Hands-on learning (skills courses, judicial internships, clinics, etc.) are the most effective preparation for law practice.”

“I benefitted most from situations in law school that let me learn in real life and real time.”

Much debate has ensued during the last few years regarding the effectiveness of law school in preparing new lawyers for the practice of law and the advantages of experiential learning opportunities offered during law school. The data from this study suggest that some, if not all, of these “hands-on” or simulated learning opportunities, whether required or optional, are indeed instrumental in preparing new associates for the demands of the practice of law. The respondents, all associates in private law firms, provided a new view of some of the various experiential opportunities offered in law schools, and of whether these experiences affected their development and preparedness as a lawyer.

Participation in and Benefits of Legal Clinics

Slightly under one-third (30.2%) of the survey respondents reported that they had participated in at least one legal clinic during law school. Within this group, 63.1% rated these clinics “very useful” using a scale of 1 to 4 (with 1 being “not useful at all” and 4 being “very useful”). Only 3.9% of the respondents in this group rated the clinics as “not useful at all.”

Participation in and Benefits of Externships/Field Placements

Tracking similarly to participation in legal clinics, 36.2% of the associate respondents reported having taken part in an externship or field placement during law school. Not surprisingly, participation in these programs increased for students who attended law school in metropolitan areas with populations over 100,000. Overall, roughly 3 out of 5 (60.1%) associates who reported participating in at least one externship or field placement rated the experience as “very useful.”

Participation in and Benefits of Practice Skills Courses

The majority (70.1%) of the responding associates reported that they had taken at least one practice skills course during law school, with 40% reporting that they had taken three or more practice skills courses. The most common practice skills course taken by this group was Trial Advocacy. Surprisingly, the data reveal that the associates who reported participating in at least one of these courses considered them to be only moderately useful. Unlike the usefulness rating reported by associates who had participated in legal clinics and/or externships, only 35.8% considered their practice skills course(s) to be “very useful.”

Participation in and Benefits of Pro Bono Work During Law School

The data reveal striking differences when it comes to participation in and usefulness of pro bono work during law school compared to other experiential or “hands-on” learning opportunities. The vast majority of respondents (88.3%) reported that pro bono work during law school was not required. Within the group who reported doing pro bono work, either voluntarily or as part of a curriculum requirement, over half (59.3%) said that they performed fewer than 40 hours of pro bono work during their law school tenure. When asked to rate the general usefulness of pro bono work in preparing them for private practice, associates ranked the experience(s) significantly lower, an average of 2.2 on a scale of 1 to 4 (with 1 being “not at all useful” and 4 being “very useful”), compared to the overall usefulness ratings of legal clinics (an average of 3.4), externships or field placements (an average of 3.4), and skills courses (an average of 3.1).

The full report is available at http://www.nalp.org/uploads/2010ExperientialLearningStudy.pdf

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One Response

  1. As AALS President Reese Hansen said in his letter to the ABA Standards Review Committee dated June 1, 2010, “clinical courses are the culminations of the substantive courses in the curriculum, reinforcing and extending the learning in substantive courses.” Through clinical courses, Hansen said, “students typically develop problem-solving skills, learn to exercise critical judgment, and enhance analytical thinking as they bring substantive law to bear on practice experience. They represent some of the kinds of integrative education that are highly praised in the Carnegie Report.” The two overlapping AALS conferences in Seattle in June (www.aals.org/curriculum2011/) will explore these connections deeply. Here is an excerpt from the “Why Attend” description:

    “We will spend the first two days of the conference (June 13 and 14) with non-clinical faculty and deans in a joint curriculum and clinical conference designed to give us an opportunity to interact and exchange ideas about the law school curriculum on a macro level. During this phase of the conference we will use plenary sessions and facilitated small groups to examine five topics: what are the core values of a 21st century legal education; how can we understand and teach about practicing law across borders and cultures; how can we use experiential learning to enrich the curriculum; how can we prepare students to be ready for the profession; and how can we achieve institutional change. The sessions will be designed to explore both competencies (e.g., critical thinking, problem solving, professional judgment) and methods for achieving them (e.g., opportunities for students to merge doctrine, skills, and professional identity, to deal with situations in which client problems, facts, legal rules, and ethical principles are fluid and ill-defined, and to see how law and theory function in practice). An overall goal of this part of the conference is to identify and explore how to achieve the curricular changes that will promote learning for transfer – learning that will maximize students’ ability to function as effective and ethical professionals in unfamiliar settings and under circumstances that we cannot now predict.

    . . . We will spend the next two days of the conference (June 15 and 16) on our own as clinical faculty, reflecting on what we learned during the first two days, and drilling down into one of the core components of clinical legal education: problem solving. Through plenary sessions, concurrent sessions, and small group meetings, we will examine four areas of problem-solving: (1) understanding the content and context of legal problems; (2) diagnosing or defining legal problems; (3) making decisions in the context of developing client-centered solutions; and finally, (4) integrating what students have learned in law school and transferring that learning into practice.”

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