Tuesday, October 25, 2005

How Much Clinical Education Is Enough?

We've had a few postings previously on this blog about the place of practical and clinical programs in legal education, and we've all heard the complaints from the practicing bar about law schools' failure to teach practical skills (including, perhaps, legal research). Personally, although I tend to be something of a contrarian on the topic of legal research instruction, I also tend to think legal education generally works pretty well. For evidence of this, I look to the legal market: law firms keep hiring law school graduates, and if the firms didn't find our graduates had the skills and knowledge they need, the market would produce alternatives. (At least, that's probably true for the mid-size to large law firm market. That leaves aside the question of how well contemporary legal education--as expensive as it is--contributes to meeting the legal needs of the middle class and the poor.)

Be that as it may. Here is a thoughtful comment by Gordon Smith on the relative roles of clinical education and other forms of practical experience:

One thing we have not seen law schools attempt, as far as I know, is imposing a work experience requirement on new admits. Business schools expect their students to gain some real-world experience before embarking on their graduate study. In my view as a teacher, law students benefit greatly from prior work experience. I am partial to experience outside of the legal industry, though working as a paralegal or legal assistant can be valuable, too. The main point is to have some engagement with the world of work so that the student can imagine the conflicts and potential conflicts that lie at the heart of the study of law.

Despite my enthusiasm for work experience before law school, I am less enthusiastic about the expansion of clinical experiences during law school. Clinics are an expensive means of delivering legal education, and their effectiveness is constrained by the academic calendar and by competing demands on student attention. Also, clinicians tend to be an evangelical lot, spreading the gospel of practical skills training. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) message of their evangelism is that intellectual engagement with the law distracts from the real purpose of law school. In my view, this is exactly backwards. Law school is the time to develop an intellectual framework for thinking about law. Some practical skills training is useful, but mainly to illuminate and enrich the intellectual experience, not to supplant it. Graduates of law schools will spend most of their careers developing practical skills, and as much as future employers might want us to teach such skills in law school, it is not our comparative advantage.

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