Monday, February 6, 2017
This is a new article by Professors Martha Kanter and Grace Dodier (Northwestern). It's available at 17 W. Mich. U. Cooley J. Prac. & Clin. L. 265 (2016). From the introduction:
American law schools are swept up in a trend designed to sell law school applicants on the notion that three years of law school training will deliver them as “practice-ready” graduates ready for hire by eager legal employers. The practice-ready rhetoric in vogue at American law schools suggests that a law school graduate is the equivalent of a ready-made meal that travels from freezer to oven to table - ready in a matter of minutes. Law schools have responded to the growing problem of limited job opportunities that unemployed law graduates are facing. In response, many law schools are promoting curricula that promise to produce practice-ready graduates to a legal profession that has suffered setbacks in the economic recession. This effort, consistent with the American Bar Association's decision to require law students to complete six credits of experiential course work, is laudable, but it has its shortcomings. A law school's curriculum should impart practical skills to young lawyers. However, the practice-ready movement's broad language, implicit promises, and attendant curricular changes were inspired by marketplace realities created by years of economic forces beyond the control of law schools. The practice- ready movement has encouraged law schools to rapidly fashion skills programs that address the schools' present practical needs at the risk of failing to ensure that young lawyers know it will take many years of work before they are capable of practicing law as independent professionals. It has conflated the primary objective of most law schools-to prepare their students to embark on lifelong careers in the law-with the more practical and immediate goal of attracting enough qualified students to fill incoming classes. This approach is shortsighted.
The practice-ready movement sends a hopeful message to law school applicants that they will find jobs in the legal profession upon graduation by achieving legal competence through school-based experience. Indeed, some law schools' practice-ready marketing efforts suggest that graduates will have a full complement of legal skills upon graduation. No amount of experiential learning during law school can lead to legal skills mastery or guarantee a law school graduate's employment. As most lawyers and those who teach at law schools know, a law school cannot graduate a master lawyer in three years any more than a medical school can graduate a master surgeon in three years. In fact, the practice-ready movement's boastful claims may undermine students' understanding that learning to practice law is a lifelong endeavor. The most effective lawyers are those who have developed a professional identity over time. Furthermore, no single definition of a “practice-ready” graduate exists because the definition will vary from school to school, community to community, and state to state. And finally, the movement runs the risk of permitting the Bar and law firms to shirk their obligation to mentor novice lawyers.Yet, despite the movement's pitfalls, it presents legal educators with an opportunity to discuss what law schools can realistically do to prepare students for practice. This article advocates that, at a minimum, law schools retire the practice-ready tag line and instead consider how to better educate students for their lifelong roles as members of a learned profession. As it is, the literature and an increasing number of law school initiatives suggest that students who take experiential courses can be made practice-ready or even masters of various practice skills by the time they graduate. The number of critics sounding a cautionary note about the practice-ready movement is in the minority. Before they develop, advertise, and implement curricula that offer to make students practice-ready, law schools should determine whether they can deliver on their promises.Although a law school education cannot transform a college graduate into a master lawyer, law schools can achieve the critical goal of producing competent law graduates who are willing to do what is necessary to develop their professional skills and identities. Law schools can provide their students with a balanced education in core doctrinal and skills courses that will help them to begin their life's work of delivering competent and ethical legal services to clients. Law school is fundamentally an introduction to the practice of law, a learned and worthy profession in which the attorney places the client before self, and the pursuit of justice above all else. A legal education should “prepar[e] men and women not for a trade but for a profession-the profession of law.”
In Part A of this article, we define what we mean by the practice-ready movement and discuss the forces that have propelled the practice-ready curriculum to the forefront of legal education. In Part B we examine some of the pitfalls of the current emphasis on practice-ready curricula. Finally in Part C, we argue that a legal education that prepares a young lawyer for practice should integrate experiential learning with professional formation.