Vol. 41, No. 1

What do law students need in order to ‘fly’? And how can bar associations help?

by Dan Kittay

A recent study confirms what some bar associations and law schools have learned through experience: The changing legal market requires that law school graduates have more practical skills and professional attributes, as well as traditional legal training, to be better able to find employment after they graduate.

“New lawyers need some legal skills and require intelligence, but they are successful when they come to the job with a much broader blend of legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics that comprise the whole lawyer,” says Alli Gerkman, director of Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers, which conducted the survey as part of its Foundations for Practice project. ETL is part of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.

The survey, to which more than 24,000 practicing lawyers across the country responded, is the first part of an effort by ETL to close the “employment gap” for law school graduates.

“This first phase was about understanding what legal employers need,” Gerkman said. “In the next phase, we want to take those results and work with law schools and legal employers to look at what they’re doing and evaluate whether they have programs in place that are ensuring that their students graduate with these foundations.”

Could this mean an increasing role for bar associations in helping law students gain necessary skills before the JD?

Daniel Webster Scholar: An alternative with a long history

The discussion about focusing more of the law school curriculum on practical skills in order to develop “practice ready” lawyers has been ongoing for years. While there is not universal agreement in the legal community about the need for change, some bar associations have decided to focus more attention on those topics, and have been working with law schools and on their own to help.

One of the longer running efforts is the Daniel Webster Scholar program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. The program, which includes the New Hampshire Bar Association among its collaborators, offers some second- and third-year UNH law students the chance to combine parts of the regular school curriculum with the DWS version, which focuses on simulations, client interactions, and other work designed to give the students a solid background in handling many basic legal procedures, says John Garvey, DWS director and professor at the law school. Completion of the program functions as a bar exam, so graduates don't need take the traditional bar exam to begin practicing.

DWS began as a pilot program in 2005, Garvey says. The idea for it originated with Chief Justice Linda Dalianis of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Dalianis had noticed when she was a trial judge that many lawyers were unprepared to handle basic legal work, Garvey recalls. When Dalianis eventually became a state Supreme Court justice, she convinced her colleagues to authorize the pilot program.

Garvey was hired to develop the initial curriculum and requirements. He interviewed judges, law school faculty, students and NHBA officials in an attempt to find a core curriculum that could provide the right mix of practical skills training and traditional legal education.

While the Supreme Court was behind the program, Garvey says there were those in the legal community who were skeptical about its value. He heard such sentiments as “We’ve been taking the bar exam this way; why do we need to change it?” and “We’ve been teaching students this way; why do we need to change it?” He believes that involving the “stakeholders” in the creation of the curriculum helped to overcome much of the resistance to the program.

Getting to ‘yes’

That skepticism is something that Robert Hirshon also sees. Hirshon, an ABA past president and currently a professor from practice and special counsel of developments in the legal profession at University of Michigan Law School, teaches ethics courses that focus on “how ethics play into everyday practice, versus just a focus on the rules themselves,” he says. “It’s much more of a holistic approach, because that’s the way I experienced it as a practitioner for 30 years.”

The State Bar of Michigan is involved with other practice-oriented programs at the school, Hirshon says, adding that bar associations looking to partner with law schools will likely find some easier to work with than others.

“Each law school takes a very individual approach. Because the faculties guard very closely their prerogatives, and what they teach and how they teach it, one size does not fit all,” Hirshon notes. “Where one law school might say, ‘We’d love to have the state bar come in,’ another might say, ‘No, thank you.’ ”

Hirshon recommends that bars looking to connect with law schools on practical skills training consider talking with individual professors who might have some connection with the bar. Getting the professor to agree with a proposed program can help to move it through the faculty and administration, and help to neutralize opposition, he explains.

As the discussion continues, bars take action

Jim Calloway, director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program, sees both sides of the question of changing the focus to add more practical skills training. Calloway regularly speaks at law schools on practical subjects students will need to know once they become practicing attorneys. Topics include cyber-ethics, which he defines as the intersection of the law and technology and how it affects a lawyer’s ethical obligations, such as keeping data secure and eliminating threats to confidentiality; and how to set up a solo or small firm practice.

Calloway’s personal opinion is that law schools should spend “a lot more time” teaching practical skills, but he respects many academics’ view that this would come at a high cost.

“If you would add 15 or 20 percent of a curriculum to be in practical skills, that means cutting 15 or 20 percent of what’s currently offered now,” he says, “and that’s a real challenge because many of the individuals in the law schools believe they are teaching important things that would be discontinued if we shifted the focus.”

However different the law school curriculum may look in the future, many other state and local bar associations are taking steps to help today’s law students gain practical skills—sometimes in conjunction and collaboration with law schools, and sometimes by reaching law students directly. To learn more about several of those programs, please see “How do bar associations help law students? A closer look,” also in this issue.