Simplistic Media Reports

The website Law.com recently published an article entitled “ABA: Law schools getting the message on practical skills” The gist of the article is summarized in its opening sentence: “The dismal job market for newly minted lawyers has influenced how most law school administrators approach their course offerings, with 76 percent of the institutions surveyed by the American Bar Association reporting that they’ve modified their curricula to adapt.”

I will be interested in seeing the whole study. I’m not so sure of the causal link the article suggests, and certainly the Executive Summary of the ABA report makes no such connection. Most significantly, coming to the conclusion that the job market is the motivating factor in curricular reform based on a comparison between 1992-2002 and 2002-2012 seems tenuous. Comparing curriculum over 20 some years and concluding that the 2008 job market collapse is the cause of change seems a bit tenuous.

Skills training has been evolving in legal education since before 2008. While, as the article correctly points out, the Carnegie Report and Best Practices for Legal Education have influenced law schools since they were published in 2007, the McCrate Report (and the Crampton Report before it) arguably spurred greater and, at least at this point, more fundamental change. Indeed, the changes in legal writing cited in the article, including the proliferation of Lawyering Skills courses rather than legal research and writing courses, began in the 90’s. One thing that has made me proud of legal education over the decades is the increasing emphasis on skills – proud, because it has been done despite the fact that the reward structure to which law schools respond (e.g., U.S. News, large firm hiring, judicial clerkships) gives little reward to schools who do skills training well or students who take skills courses.

The article completely ignores what I think has been the biggest curricular reform in the past 20 years—the creation of academic support programs. My gut tells me that in the past 10 years law schools have invested at least as many, if not more, resources into programs to increase bar passage than teach skills.

My real concern with the article, however, and why I want to read the report, is that the article’s conclusion implies the conclusions are those of the ABA. In reality, the conclusions foster what I believe is the simplistic view expressed in the press and the biggest impediment to true reform of legal education in the area of skills training—the belief that reform is solely a law school problem. There is wide spread belief that if law schools just did the right thing, we would produce practice ready lawyers.

The fact is, skills education is a profession wide issue. I have already mentioned the fact that (despite criticism of legal education) the reward structure does not value skills training. You want to change legal education? Get federal court judges and hiring partners at large law firms to say they will not hire anyone who does not have 15 credit hours of clinic.

But the issue runs deeper. It requires all parts of the profession to look at what it does to inhibit the training of practice ready lawyers. Just take one example; bar admission. One of the biggest impediments to developing a program that truly prepares someone to practice law is the bar exam itself. When students need to take upwards of 22 subjects in some states to prepare for the bar exam, it leaves little time in the curriculum for innovative skills training. And, when a state (such as New York) decides to add a pro bono requirement for initial admission to the bar, rather than say reducing the number of subjects tested on the exam and requiring a truly meaningful clinical experience, it does not help matters

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