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VOL. 37 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 19, 2013

Practice makes better for today’s law classes

By Jeannie Naujeck

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The buzz in legal education today is all about “practical skills.”

It’s a push to give law students more training and experience in the actual practice of law, moving them out of the classroom in the second and third years and immersing them in the nuts and bolts of the profession.

Critics say schools are turning out too many new lawyers who are well-versed in legal theory but not the basics, such as filing a motion, making them less attractive to employers.

But in Tennessee, at least, practical learning is nothing new. It’s baked into the curriculum at the state’s six law schools, which all offer plentiful opportunities for experiential learning in the form of law clinics that serve the community, externships at government and public interest offices, pro bono work requirements and more.

Belmont University College of Law, which attained provisional accreditation last month, requires its students to complete a practical skills course each semester, possibly the only law school with such a requirement, its dean says.

And the University of Tennessee-Knoxville College of Law’s legal clinics, where second-year students provide actual legal representation to the community, has been the designated Legal Aid provider in Knox County during the 60+ year history of the program.

“Tennessee doesn’t make headlines for having a new program, but for 65 years it’s been part of who we are,” says Valorie Vojdik, director of clinical programs and professor of law at UT.

“We recognize that it’s critical when we graduate new lawyers, that they have the basic skills they need to practice law. Studying law in a classroom is not the same as actually going to court or sitting with a client to advise them on doing a deal. The clinics are where the law comes to life.”

UT runs the nation’s longest continuously operating clinical program, and it is consistently ranked among the nation’s best. The clinic is set up as an actual law office in which students, with the oversight of professors, serve actual clients in the community. Clients are typically small or start-up businesses and residents of limited means in need of advocacy in dispute resolution and business and transactional law.

The program is open to second-year students in the second semester. Working 20 hours a week – sometimes longer on a big case – they might represent youths in delinquency proceedings or tenants in a housing dispute, practice criminal defense, draft will and trust documents, mediate disputes in sessions court, help a non-profit organization with legal filings or participate in the school’s innocence project.

Those in the business clinic might assist small companies and entrepreneurs with forming a corporation or business entity, licensing technology or getting trademark protection.

Business clinic graduates are typically a year to a year and a-half ahead in skill development of graduates who do not have that experience, says Brian Krumm, associate professor of law who teaches the business clinic.

“The typical model for years was students would just learn doctrine, then for a year and a-half to two years they would work under an attorney really learning how to practice law. Law firms can’t afford that,” he says.

Participation in a clinic satisfies UT’s requirement that students complete a skills course, and more than 80 percent of students do so.

UT students may also participate in prosecutorial, public defender or judicial externships in which they work in the office for course credit.

Externships

Washington & Lee University’s School of Law made headlines when it “reformed” its third-year curriculum five years ago to better transition students into the real world of practice. 3Ls now spend their year on “real client” experiences, externships, skills immersion seminars and a professionalism program. At the time, it was hailed as a revolution in legal education.

But Vanderbilt University Law School dean Chris Guthrie says the notion that law schools haven’t changed in 150 years is plain wrong.

While the first year of “case method” study may not have changed much due to the necessity of covering basic legal theory, opportunities for second- and third-year students are dramatically different than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

“You can get substantial exposure as a student to practical skills in our curricula and, frankly, in most curricula today,” Guthrie says.

“There’s been a huge expansion in clinics, in simulations or skills courses, a broad array of externships out in the world and some distinctive experiments.

“I do think that many schools are investing in different kinds of curricula and making changes, but a lot has been in place for 20 years.”

Vanderbilt Law offers half a dozen clinics, an international lab, simulation and skills courses and opportunities to gain course credit through externships at not-for-profit, governmental and general counsel offices during the summer and academic year.

This summer, 88 Vanderbilt Law students are in externships in 24 states, Washington, D.C., Chile and China.

Another 76 students received stipends to fund public-interest work in government and public interest agencies around the U.S and in five foreign countries, for which they do not receive course credit or pay. A number of other students have secured summer positions at private law firms.

Students at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law work with the community in legal clinics in child and family litigation, civil litigation, elder law, housing adjudication and mediation. Externships are offered in local, state and federal court systems, public defender and attorney general offices and public interest organizations. Its graduates consistently have a higher bar passage rate than the state average.

At Belmont University College of Law, students are strongly encouraged to complete an externship or field placement before graduation. More than 60 percent of the charter class has done so, with nearly 75 students completing externships over the two years the school has been open.

“From inception, the Belmont College of Law has focused on helping prepare students for the practice of law,” Dean Jeffrey Kinsler says.

“We have worked closely with many practitioners in Nashville and elsewhere to help identify opportunities for our students to engage in appropriate legal work as part of the education.”

Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law, too, has an extensive externship program in which students are placed in prosecutors, public defenders and other law offices.

The Duncan School requires students to complete 30 pro bono hours, 10 of which must be legal hours, before graduation. Even faculty members must complete pro bono work.

Skip the third year?

In theory, the changes to Washington & Lee’s third-year curriculum would make its graduates more employable. However, there’s little evidence that graduates of the new model do better than those from other schools in the same tier.

In 2011, 55 percent of W&L lawyers secured full-time jobs that required bar passage in the nine months after graduation. In 2012, that number dropped to 49.2 percent.

New York State may have an even more radical solution.

There’s buzz in some legal circles around the idea of letting students sit for the bar after two years, essentially doing away entirely with the third year of law school.

But such a move would likely have weak support from law schools, as it would cut a year of revenue from every student who wishes to practice in New York and, if successful, would probably spread to other state bars.

If qualified graduates aren’t finding work, it’s not the fault of the law school curriculum, Guthrie says. It’s a simple case of supply and demand.

“Law schools have a role to play for sure in doing everything we can to have our students be successful, but we can’t at present address the imbalance in the marketplace,” he says.

“If there are five jobs and ten lawyers competing for those jobs, five lawyers aren’t going to have jobs, no matter what their experiences are.”