legal education, clinical legal education, legal labor market, student debt, curricular reform
The sky is falling on legal education say the pundits, and preparing “practice ready” graduates is one of the best strategies for surviving the fallout. This is a millennialist version of the argument for clinical legal education that dominated discussion in the law schools in the 1960s and 1970s. The circumstances are different now, as are the people calling for reform, but the two movements are alike in one respect: both view skills training as legal education’s primary purpose. Everything else is a frolic and detour, and a fatal frolic and detour in hard times such as the present.
No one would dispute that the United States legal system has a labor market problem, but law schools cannot revive the labor market, or improve the employment prospects of their graduates, by providing a different type of instruction. Placing students in jobs 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). The cause of the present troubles is a lack of jobs, not a lack of graduates (of any kind), and producing more “practice ready” graduates will have no effect on the supply of jobs. The proposal is a spectacular non sequitur to the present troubles.
Were the proposal relevant to the present troubles, it has other problems. For one, the concept of “practice ready” is unintelligible. 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. If the expression had a single meaning law schools still could not act on it because practice skill depends upon dispositions (i.e., habits informed by reflection), and dispositions take longer than a law school course to develop. Diverting resources to “practice ready” programs also would undermine a law school’s ability to provide the body of knowledge and teach the critical thinking skills that underlie all law practice tasks. The ability to think from an informed perspective is the ultimate practice skill. The movement for “practice ready” instruction is a stealth move by the bar to transfer the costs of new lawyer training more than a program for improving the education of law students, and like a lot of blog commentary, it is more slogan than idea. Perhaps that is why it is so popular.