Ask a third-year law student from any graduating class and you’ll hear the same knocks on law school. They’ll likely concede the need to learn the theories and precedents underlying the legal system, but at the same time, it’s hard to refute their deeper concern: How helpful is “thinking like an attorney” when you don’t know what to file or when — let alone how to take a case from start to finish?
VOCATION VERSUS ACADEMIC DISCIPLINE
It wasn’t always like this. Long before clients underwrote new graduate training, the law was actually an apprentice industry — no different than plumbers and electricians. To prepare for practice, future lawyers spent years “reading law” under the tutelage of judges or seasoned attorneys. Eventually, law evolved from a vocation to an academic discipline. The result: Law graduates can churn out briefs in droves — just don’t ask them about procedure.
As you can imagine, this places graduates at a disadvantage early in their careers. To counter, Duke Law’s Seth Pearson, a former White House intern, believes schools should focus more heavily on practical skills. “I think many law students leave law school with no idea what it means to be a lawyer,” Pearson says. “Duke Law has made great strides in creating opportunities for students to practice the skills they learn in the classroom, but the opportunities are optional and can be seen sometimes as a distraction to your education instead of a critical piece of the academic experience.
“I would like to see professional conduct and practical skills become a pillar of legal education. It would make us all better at what we will be asked to do in practice.”
Pearson is just one of the voices from Tipping The Scales’ Top Law Students From The Class of 2016 who is calling for law school reform. As part of its survey of this year’s Best & Brightest 3Ls, Tipping The Scales asked nominees to share how they would change law school. From experiential learning to grading practices and diversity, the Class of 2016 didn’t hold back.
GRADS WANT TO LEARN HOW TO BE LAWYERS … NOT LAW PROFESSORS
Not surprisingly, many complaints start with experiential learning opportunities — or the lack thereof. Hannah Alexander, who plans to specialize in immigrant rights, civil rights, and employment law after graduating from Texas Law, would shift law schools’ attention to areas like working with clients and writing briefs instead of “cramming for one final test at the end of the semester.” Similarly, Vanderbilt Law’s Lawrence Crane-Moscowitz, a Wharton-trained Goldman Sachs analyst ticketed to commercial litigation, touts clinical education as one way to reduce graduates’ learning curve. “I think law school in general needs to put a stronger focus on clinical education,” he says. “Lawyering is much more than just pure doctrinal study. It is learning how to interview clients, how to manage expectations, how to lead projects. Without more focus on these skills, I think young lawyers will be underprepared for entering the workplace.”
In fact, graduates like William & Mary Law’s Katie Chounet contend that clinical or externship experiences should happen early on, even in the first year. One reason, says USC Law’s Madi DiPietro, is that it gives students a leg up during summer internships. More important, adds Minnesota Law’s Amber Kraemer, it better positions students to bring value. “The first time that you complete a piece of legal work that you know is benefiting a client is an incredible experience,” Kraemer notes. “I have learned more in my ‘hands-on’ law school experiences than I learned in any single course.”
Berkeley Law’s Misha Tsukerman would take it a step further. While he lauds the school’s direct service opportunities, he would build in mandatory clinics, thus making it easier to register for one. On the other hand, Tomer Vandsburger would de-emphasize bar prep. In the process, he would implement a two-track system at the University of Washington to better balance abstract legal models with nuts-and-bolts knowhow. “The first track would be the traditional coursework, which would focus on deeper, more theoretical understandings of the law. The second would focus on developing practical skills for day-to-day legal practice. I think that by focusing on preparation for the bar, schools take away rigorous instruction and the opportunity for students to explore less-traditional legal paths.”