Do Law Students Receive Sufficient Real-World Training?

February 17, 2012Articles
As seen in Business Lexington.

Recent articles appearing in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, respectively, question whether our nation’s law schools are providing sufficient practical training to their students. It is an age-old criticism of law schools that the graduating law student is not equipped to immediately begin practicing his/her trade. It is true that many students graduate from law school without ever seeing real lawyers engaged in litigation or witnessing a business transaction, even a simple home loan closing.

Allison Connelly, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law and Director of the UK Legal Clinic, reports that the University of Kentucky recognizes this shortcoming and has taken several steps to address the issue. At the UK Legal Clinic, approximately 35 students a year are given the opportunity to represent real clients with real legal problems. Professor Connelly oversees the program and provides guidance to the students. They handle everything from the preparation of estate planning documents to uncontested divorces. Professor Connelly signs all pleadings and other court papers but the students are allowed to meet with the clients, participate in negotiations with the opposing party, and argue cases before the court or administrative agency.

Professor Connelly also reports that the American Bar Association requires all law schools, as part of their accreditation process, to require that each student take at least one course involving practical legal training. UK fulfills this requirement through its legal writing, moot court and litigation skills classes taught primarily by practicing attorneys. In addition, UK has expanded its offerings of externships, placing students at The Public Defender’s office, the Fayette Commonwealth Attorney’s office, and other government agencies.

Notwithstanding UK’s efforts, local law firms continue to provide the necessary training to newly-hired associate attorneys. Several examples of training programs include:

Pro Bono Programs

Many local firms encourage their young associates to participate in the Fayette County Pro Bono Program which provides legal services to indigent clients. Generally, an experienced attorney within the firm oversees the work of the younger associates but client counseling, preparation of pleadings and courtroom appearances are handled by the younger associates.

Mentoring Programs

Most firms also have a formal mentoring program, pairing their more experienced attorneys with a younger attorney, with the experienced attorney providing day-to-day mentoring advice to the younger attorney within a particular practice area. Younger attorneys accompany the experienced attorneys to depositions, hearings, trials and closings where they can observe “good lawyering” up close. Follow-up sessions between the mentor and “student” allow for a full discussion of what occurred and how things might have been handled differently.

Younger associates at smaller firms may experience a steeper learning curve as they may be shoved into the fire of first chair responsibility sooner than their classmates at larger firms. It should be noted, however, that there are experienced solo practitioners and attorneys at firms who willingly serve as mentors to these younger attorneys who seek their help.

Recently, one local firm required six of its litigation associates to participate in an in-house mock trial exercise. The associates were assigned to represent the parties in a “make believe” case and each week over a one-month period, the associates were required to make oral presentations to a judge and jury composed of experienced attorneys from the firm. Each associate was required to make an opening statement, conduct a direct and cross examination of a witness and present a closing argument. At the end of each week’s presentations, the experienced attorneys critiqued the younger attorneys’ performances, providing constructive advice and encouragement.

Leadership Programs

In addition to providing practical training to their young lawyers, most firms also provide guidance on the non-practicing elements of being a lawyer. For instance, one local firm has a program called the “Leadership Academy” which is an eight month orientation program designed to help first year associates and recent lateral hires to learn the ins and outs of client relationships, timekeeping, business development, business dinner etiquette, firm policies, etc. Another local firm has a similar program called “Backpacks to Briefcases” where the younger attorneys are introduced to the firm culture, philosophy and day-to-day routines followed by a typical lawyer at the firm.

The practice of law is becoming more complicated. Lawyers at larger firms are expected to become proficient in discreet areas of the law. Law schools cannot be expected to provide practical training in each one of these practice areas. However, programs such as the Legal Clinic at the University of Kentucky can provide a baseline of training heretofore not available to its students. Meanwhile, as has probably been the case for as long as there have been lawyers, experienced lawyers will continue to provide the bulk of the practical training to their younger colleagues.