There is a famous video of the NBA and NCAA basketball legend, Allen Iverson, defending himself against the media for being criticized by his coach, Larry Brown for missing practice. The video is so popular now it has received over 8 million You Tube views. Iverson, a dynamic player, of great talent, and success, has almost become defined by that one moment. He has become an example of a great player disrespecting the importance of practice.
Practice is, of course, how one gets better at their trade or vocation. Dancers, musicians, and for our purposes, lawyers gain skills and confidence when they engage in practice. They can even master other aspects of their trade that they haven't done faster if they just master the basic skills. Lawyers ease into other areas quickly because they learned the basics, the fundamentals.
Twice this semester I have received calls from employers who wanted to hire two of my students. These students had just graduated and had no post-law school lawyer experience; yet, these employers were so impressed they called me right away to ask about their work and how they got along in the workplace.
First, it did not surprise me. The two students were very good students who had worked in the clinic for two full semesters. They had participated in every aspect of clinic too. They had represented clients in court hearings. They had interviewed the clients, maintained client relations, done research, plotted strategy, drafted court filings, and had, at all times, maintained a high level of professionalism and ethical conduct. They had done everything a lawyer could do under the rules and more including new challenges such as transactional work, something that just drifted into our clinic by chance.
So, it was without any reservation that they both received top recommendations from me and a long detailed response about the specific nature of their work. They had been lawyers for the semesters they worked for me even though they were only so under the Michigan rules which allows students to do everything a lawyer does just as long as a supervising attorney admitted to the Michigan bar supervises their work.
I know for sure one of them accepted the position but the experience got me to again think about the current focus by law schools on “practical skills” and making our students “practice ready.” Some have suggested that this term is now overused or overplayed and that we should be careful. Self analysis and critique is good; however, these particular comments oftentimes come from those who dismiss clinics as costly and unnecessary despite the march of the industry towards producing "practice ready" graduates like my two students above. We know clinics are useful and we know their value. Professor Robert R. Kuehn's article "Pricing Clinical Legal Education" notes that there is no increased costs associated with experiential education and law school clinic courses even if law schools sought to provide each student with such an experience.
Two years ago another student of mine graduated with an eye on becoming part of the JAG Corps. The student was offered a position based on the fact that he had appeared in court with clients and had conducted hearings on the record. He had the actual skills that the JAG Corps was seeking in an applicant even though he had no post-JD experience at the time. His only experience was working for a year in our legal clinic. This is “practice ready” experience and students should be encouraged to pursue it and then tell their employers explicitly what they have done. We should likewise not diminish what we are doing.
Our students are not Allen Iverson at the podium defending himself. They want to practice and learn the trade. They want to learn lawyer skills and they do. They want to one day get in the game and do well. If we remain committed to our work, they will.