Thursday, September 08, 2005

Practical Skills

Students complain to me from time to time that they are not gaining many practical skills in law school. They have successfully completed criminal law and criminal procedure, but don't think they would know how to defend a DUI. They don't feel competent to draft a will or a contract. They are halfway through law school and are afraid that they won't graduate from law school ready to set up their own practice.

I remember feeling the same way when I first got out of law school. I always practiced in a small firm, so I was able to start by handling simpler matters and work my way up. More experienced lawyers in the firm advised and mentored me. I can't imagine trying to practice on my own with the skills I picked up in law school.

I usually show these students some practice and CLE materials that will help them with the practical basics. I recommend that, while they are still students, they join the bar associations of the states where they intend to practice. Lately I have been recommending some of the blogs written by practicing attorneys. Many of our students plan to practice in sparsely populated areas where there aren't many lawyers. Maybe blogs can help them establish virtual support networks where real mentors are unavailable.

Today Promote the Progress, a blawg on intellectual property and technology law, had a posting about law professors assigning blawgs as part of the course curriculum. That got me wondering whether reading blogs written by attorneys who practice in a related area would help the students connect their coursework with its practical applications. Is this something law professors should strive for?

Even though academic law librarians usually only teach research to first year law students or in a low-credit electives for second- and third-year students, we worry a great deal about whether they leave our classes with all the research skills they will need for summer jobs or their first professional positions after law school. We invite speakers and do surveys and write articles about how students don't have the practical research skills they need when they go out into the real world.

With the exception of legal writing, I don't think that I have ever heard similar criticisms of any other law school course – at least within academia. (I have read some passionate criticisms of the law school curriculum on blogs by practicing attorneys.)

Are there other specific subject areas about which law schools are criticized for not giving students the practical skills they will need to succeed as soon as they graduate and pass the bar? Do law school professors seek input from practicing lawyers on how the professors can better prepare their students for practice? Should they?

Do substantive law professors care what lawyers think? If not, why not? Should they care more about whether students will be ready to practice law when they graduate? Should law librarians care less? Why do we hold ourselves to a higher standard? What accounts for the different expectations about legal research?

I don't have any answers. I just wonder about these things.

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