On the Value of Gap Years and Non-Legal Experience to Legal Employers (and Law Schools)

Reviewing the results of the Foundations for Practice survey conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), I cannot help but note how the 24,000 responding attorneys ranked the helpfulness of various criteria for hiring beginning lawyers. (See here.) Just under 80 percent (78.3%, to be exact) identified “life experience between college and law school” as either a very helpful or somewhat helpful hiring criterion. Moreover, while “legal employment” (88.4% ranking as very or somewhat helpful) and “legal externship” (81.5%) unsurprisingly sat near the top of the list, “other experiential education” — meaning non-legal — was very close behind at 79.4%.

The responding attorneys, from a wide variety of practice areas and from throughout the country, ranked these two non-legal experience criteria — “life experience between college and law school” and “other experiential education” — as slightly more helpful than certain types of legal experience, including federal court clerkships, state court clerkships, and participation in law school clinics. The starker divide, however, came when considering traditional hiring criteria related to law school performance. While well over three quarters of respondents classified both personal and professional experience of a non-legal nature as helpful hiring criteria, only 62.5% said the same about law school class rank. Similarly, only 61.1% said so about law school attended, and merely 51.2% said so about law review experience.

One narrative coming out of the survey could indeed be that practical experience matters more than academic experience, and that seems to be what IAALS is highlighting. But, consistent with the results discussed above, I would suggest another as well: Non-legal experience — both personal and professional — matters almost as much, if not just as much, as legal experience.

The survey was just the first phrase of IAALS’s broader project, entitled Foundations for Practice, and the second phrase, which is being implemented now, directly implicates law schools. IAALS is working with four law schools to “translate the survey results into actionable learning outcomes and hiring rubrics.”

The current phrase focusing on law school outcomes turns my mind to the “incoming” side of law school admissions. The results of the survey suggest to me that law schools should more explicitly prioritize admission of students with meaningful life experience or non-legal professional experience. In addition, if it is not already, LSAC ought to be gathering and reporting to law schools pertinent data as to what percentage of law school applicants are undergraduate students who would be going directly to law school. And, as to those who are not, what are the percentages one year out from the undergraduate degree, two years, three or more, etc.? Just as law schools view national statistics on other important admissions criteria (GPA, LSAT, ethnic diversity, to mention a few) as important benchmarks, they ought to be in a position to do the same for number of years since undergraduate degree.

Having a significant percentage of students with meaningful life experience outside of the law is indisputably of great benefit to the law school learning environment. I see it every year in my classroom. More to the point of the IAALS survey results, by bringing in a significant number of students with such experience, law schools will be contributing to better outcomes — learning outcomes and employment outcomes. In a typical incoming J.D. class at my home school, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, 20% to 30% of the students are three or more years removed from their undergraduate degree. We do not have a part-time or night program, and certainly those schools that do will have higher percentages of that demographic.

At least one-third and in some years close to one-half of the students in our typical incoming class are coming straight out of their undergraduate studies without even one gap year. This demographic exists at nearly every law school in the country (in varying percentages). Given what we know about the next generation of law students, and given the importance of life experience and non-legal experience as hiring criteria to today’s legal employers, these students would seem to face a more challenging path. What do law schools need to do, if anything? Offer or enhance existing professional development programming or curricula? Offer or enhance existing experiential opportunities that are not exclusively legal in nature and that expose students to non-lawyers and other disciplines and experiences? (Just two examples: teaching or working with high school students, or working with entrepreneurs at a tech startup. Law schools affiliated with a university can offer assorted interdisciplinary educational opportunities as well.)  I will be interested to see if the second phrase of the IAALS project emphasizes ideas like these or others that respond to the demonstrated need for lawyers with life experience and non-legal professional experience.

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