Sunday, August 7, 2011

New York bar leaders ask ABA to help make law students "practice ready"

From the New York Lawyer:

Arguing that in addition to knowing the law attorneys must "know how to do useful things with the law to help solve client problems," New York bar leaders are pressing for a greater emphasis on making law school graduates and young attorneys "practice ready."

The New York State Bar Association is urging the American Bar Association, which convenes its annual meeting today in Toronto, to evaluate the legal education protocol with an eye toward "enhancing clinical work and supervised activities such as meeting with clients inside and outside the clinical setting and in court, and developing capstone courses."

A draft resolution submitted to the ABA's House of Delegates calls on several of the ABA's constituent bodies—the Center for Legal Education, the Center for Professional Responsibility, the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the Committee on CLE, the Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility and the Committee on Law School Accreditation—to "consider the requirements for the success of future lawyers as they carry out their responsibilities."

"Legal education should have more of an emphasis on making sure graduates are ready to practice law," State Bar President Vincent E. Doyle III of Connors & Vilardo in Buffalo said in an interview yesterday. "It is something that has been de-emphasized, and it shows. Our research and our own experience show that graduates are less prepared to practice law. The design is to encourage law schools to make that a focus, not the sole focus, but we do think it is important to point out to the legal community that this should be a priority in their curriculum."

The resolution is directly rooted to the "Report on the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession" issued under the past state bar president, Stephen P. Younger of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, and historically rooted in a 1992 ABA report commissioned by then-ABA President Robert MacCrate, the last New York attorney to head the ABA. The MacCrate report, a seminal critique of U.S. legal education, urged a more practice-oriented, as opposed to theory-oriented, approach.

The state bar revisited the precepts of the MacCrate report and concluded that while legal education and post-graduate training have improved markedly since 1992, "too many law students and recent graduates are not as well prepared for the profession as they might be."

"We used to think that being a good lawyer simply meant knowing the law," Messrs. Doyle and Younger said in a report submitted to the ABA. "Today, we are more likely to think that good lawyers know how to do useful things with the law to help solve client problems. …Accreditation rules should emphasize how to apply theory and doctrine to actual practice, as well as encourage the process of developing professional judgment. These are critical skills that all newly admitted lawyers should have as they embark on their legal careers."

The state bar's resolution does not suggest specific changes to the law school curriculum. Rather, it is a general call to revisit the issues raised by the MacCrate commission to ensure that the expectations of law clients are addressed in legal education and training.

"Too many law students and recent graduates are not as well prepared for the profession as they might be," the state bar said in a summary of its one-page resolution. "Law schools, bar examiners, the judiciary and the bar owe more to our young colleagues in these difficult times. This resolution is intended to cause those involved in legal education to address these issues, find solutions and revise legal education to meet these needs."

John DeNatale, director of communications and public affairs at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said the school is supportive of efforts to better prepare lawyers.

"We see the call to be practice-ready as a reflection of profound changes in the legal world," Mr. DeNatale said. "As business models, cultural standards and institutions undergo transformations, lawyers must be innovative problem-solvers."

Mr. DeNatale said Cardozo Law has 17 in-house clinics and recently created a new position of director of externships.

"All this is an important complement to intensive in-class learning," Mr. DeNatale said. "In the classroom, students engage in doctrinal analysis of cases. In the field, they apply those abilities to complex, fact-rich situations representing actual clients. …As students develop critical problem-solving skills interacting with clients, they become powerful advocates."

Richard A. Matasar, dean and president of New York Law School, agrees that graduates need to be practice ready.

"There is going to be a push toward more practice readiness at most law schools," he said. "It is driven by the market. We need to send our graduates out in a way that makes them more effective, and the schools recognize that."

Mr. Matasar, however, cautioned that each law school's mission is different and said he would oppose any attempt to interfere with the autonomy of the schools to fashion their curriculum to the needs of their students.

"Some schools may see their role as having to produce practice-ready graduates because they may be joining smaller firms and others may see their graduates as going to larger firms where there may be more opportunity for [on the job] training," Mr. Matasar said.

Stewart J. Schwab, dean of the Cornell Law School, also cautioned against a "one-size-fits-all mandate."

"It must be recognized that clinical education, because of the necessarily low student/teacher ratios, is the most expensive form of legal education, and that the benefits of this type of education must be compared to its cost," Mr. Schwab said. "In addition, one danger with some discussions of clinical or skills training is that they focus on skills for a litigation-based practice, ignoring the rather different skills and training needed for a transaction-based practice."

Mr. Doyle stressed that the state bar's resolution does not call for any regulatory changes or mandates on the law schools.


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