So What If Law Schools Can’t Produce “Practice-Ready” Graduates?
Seeing as how I’ve already argued that law schools should put more emphasis on teaching law students how to practice law, it’s only fair that I respond to a certain contrary viewpoint circulating on the interwebs. Above the Law blogger Elie Mystal—whom I’ve seen speak and whose commentary I enjoy—has dismissed as a “myth” the idea that students can graduate ready to practice sure-footedly right out of the law school gates. “I think the pedagogical infighting over ‘theory’ courses versus ‘practical’ courses,” Mystal writes, “is irrelevant when people are graduating from lower-ranked law schools with $100,000 (or more) in student loan debt.” In this critique, Mystal echoes University of Maryland law professor Robert Condlin, who in a recent research paper called the practice-ready concept a “millennialist fantasy.”
As Professor Condlin writes in the abstract to his paper, post-graduate job placement “is a function of a school’s academic reputation, not its curriculum, and the legal labor market will rebound only after the market as a whole has rebounded (and perhaps not then).” It’s the shortage of legal jobs out there that has got current law students and recent graduates (like me) at such a disadvantage, he points out, and “producing more ‘practice ready’ graduates will have no effect on the supply of jobs.” At any rate, “legal practice” itself is a multi-faceted thing, one that cannot be fit into a simple package that law schools can teach to all comers: “There are as many different types of practice as there are levels of readiness for it, and proponents of the proposal do not say which of these various possibilities (and combinations of possibilities) they have in mind.”
The problem with Mr. Mystal’s and Professor Condlin’s position is not its substance, which seems pretty sound to me. Rather, they go wrong in their choice of target: the notion that training law students to have at least some clue of how to practice law is meant to be “a panacea to the problems with legal education,” as Mystal puts it. Now, I’ve done a great deal of (highly worrisome) reading on this and related subjects over the past three-odd years. (Warnings about the follies of law school—including a lot of pretty snarky and entertaining ones—have been circulating widely through media both old and new since at least my 1L year.) In all that time, I’ve never heard or seen anyone suggest that more vocational legal schooling will be a cure-all for the problems in the legal job market.
Perhaps one shouldn’t blame Mystal, Condlin and their sympathizers for thinking otherwise. Many observers calling for law schools to operate more like trade schools don’t make it clear enough that they’re only addressing one particular problem with legal education, not all of its problems. Yet even if correcting this systemic error won’t boost the post-graduation employment rate by itself, that correction is still an inherently worthy goal. I always remember with amusement the early scene in the 1992 blockbuster My Cousin Vinny in which Joe Pesci’s titular character tells his long-suffering fiancée that law school teaches you what the law is, but not how to make use of it in the courtroom. As John Marshall Law School professor Alberto Bernabe has written, “Vinny is terrible at the things we do teach in law school, but very good at the things we don’t…[such as how to] interview clients, to gather facts, to prepare a theory of a case, to negotiate, to know when to ask a question and when to remain quiet, to cross examine a witness forcefully (but with charm) in order to expose the weaknesses in their testimony.”
Without exactly being an expert on the subject myself, I gather that Mystal and Condlin are essentially right on the facts. Common sense alone suggests that no greenhorn can emerge from any school already knowing exactly how to get the job done. At least some experience is a must for success in any position; there’s no reason to think that lawyering would be an exception to that rule. Even professional schools that focus on teaching practical skills can do only so much to prepare their students to hit the ground running after graduation day. As for law specifically, there are also many different kinds of legal practice, and law schools would be logistically hard pressed to teach all of the skills that are needed for work in all of those fields. Moreover, Mystal is right when he caustically points out that “Seton Hall could produce the most ‘practice ready’ graduates in the country, and those students still aren’t going to do as well as Columbia law students.”
Nonetheless, too many students nowadays graduate not really knowing how to be lawyers—including many who actually get jobs after graduating as well as the ones who don’t. This fact is problematic for overcharged clients and overworked attorneys who need even rookie associates to be able to walk and chew gum. Even if more practice-oriented education won’t magically conjure up a cascade of new law jobs, the legal academy should still adopt a more vocational approach, if only for the sake of productivity. It may not be possible to prepare students to practice with 100% competence when they’re hot and fresh out of the law school kitchen, but they can be made readier than they typically are today. Newly minted lawyers should not be put to shame by a Vincent LaGuardia Gambini.
Featured image courtesy of [UBC Library Communications via Flickr]