Bringing Back Apprenticeships?

arrowsConsidering the insane debts law school students take on, what role should apprenticeships play in the legal sector? Right now, only four states allow aspiring lawyers to sit for the bar without attending law school: California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. Three more—New York, Maine, and Wyoming—allow a mix of law school and apprenticeship. Unsurprisingly in such a brand-driven industry, few people take that option, The New York Times reports. Of last year’s bar exam takers, roughly 0.0007% went at it with no law school support. That’s… really not a lot of people.

But even though apprenticeships are unpopular right now, they might still play an important role in the (hopefully inevitable) overhaul of legal education. What should that role look like?

The Grey Lady has officially stepped into that debate. Instead of making it a black-and-white battle, though, The New York Times has offered up arguments for three different positions.

In one corner of the ring is University of California-Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, predictably arguing that attending law school is more important than ever. Facing him is David Lat, the founder of Above The Law, a website known for being tough on law schools. Lat argues that getting an apprenticeship should be “not just a technically available option, but an increasingly popular one.” In the middle—as a sort of mediator—stands Washington University in St. Louis Law Professor Brian Z. Tamanaha. He’s the author of “Failing Law Schools,” a popular book that explores the legal academy’s problems. His stance: Law students should spend one year in school and two years in paid apprenticeships.

Here’s a closer look at their arguments:

CHEMERINSKY: ‘GOING TO LAW SCHOOL IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER’ 

– “A century ago, the training of lawyers moved away from apprenticeships and into universities to provide standardized, in-depth education across an array of subjects. The law and the problems that it must address are obviously far more complex today, making law schools more important than ever.” 

The dean gets points for throwing in some history, but still—if the law is becoming so much more complex, doesn’t that make specialization important? And wouldn’t it be easier for students to specialize if they could dive right into apprenticeships that suit their interests?

“In their second and third years, students take specialized courses in areas of their greatest interest and learn from experts in particular fields. Clinical education in law schools allows students to gain practical experience while being carefully supervised by faculty members.” 

Good point. But there are only so much clinics each school can run. The same goes for classes.

“Thoroughly training an apprentice in what is needed to be a lawyer is a daunting and expensive task and it is unlikely that many attorneys would undertake this responsibility.”

This is probably the strongest argument. Even when law schools fail to educate well, they at least value education over profit. (In theory.)

– “If you or a loved one were found to have cancer, would you want oncologists and surgeons who were educated at top universities and then were trained by experts, or ones who learned medicine entirely through apprenticeships?” 

Interesting. More than a few people have said that law school should be more like medical school, but what they’re usually criticizing is the lack of practical training—which students could gain through apprenticeships.