June 20, 2013

"Washington & Lee pioneered an experiential third-year program that has won accolades"... but employment stats for graduates are terrible. .

Lawprof Deborah Merritt — who does clinical ("experiential") teaching herself — explains the program at Washington & Lee’s School of Law (which aims to make grads "practice ready"), shows the truly bad results for students who had reason to hope they'd be more (not less!) marketable, and comes up with 4 possible reasons for the unintended consequences:

1. Practice-ready lawyers don't cause there to be more jobs openings (and they might even cause there to be fewer jobs, if these people can do more work sooner).

2. For all the talk about practical training in law school, employers might not care quite that much when it comes to choosing among job applicants.

3. The practical experience in law school might not align closely enough with the job. Merritt teaches a criminal defense clinic and admits that students who take this clinic "are stereotyped as public defenders, do-gooders, or (worse) anti-establishment radicals–even if they took the clinic for the client counseling, negotiation, and representation experience." She also asks: "If a student chooses experiential work in entertainment law and intellectual property, does the student diminish her prospects of finding work in banking or family law? Does working in the Black Lung Legal Clinic create a black mark against a student applying to work later for corporate clients?" The political slant of law schools — especially when it comes to who wants to teach clinics — tends to result in clinics that may send the wrong signals to the employers who have slots to fill.

4. Maybe the program stimulates "higher or more specialized career ambitions" in the students, so that they don't want the kinds of jobs that are available. The actual practice of law — as experienced by most lawyers — might not be what these supposedly "practice-ready" graduates want to do.

I'm sure you can add to this list or synthesize these elements.


William said...

Men are more inclined to marry virgins than inexperienced prostitutes.

Michael said...

I think the key missing factor here is how W&L Law was ranked (in terms of employment outcomes) prior to the 3rd-year experiment. Without knowing how the Law School was placed before the experiment, simply observing that its employment rates post-graduation are relatively poor doesn't say as much about the curriculum change. What if the experiment produced significant improvement, even if the Law School is still ranked fairly low on these metrics?

edutcher said...

an experiential third-year program that has won accolades"... but employment stats for graduates are terrible. .

The operation was a success even though the patient died.

Drew Cloutier said...

Employers do not find academia's attempt to replicate real world law practice useful. Graduates of the program possess a false confidence that they are more ready for practice than their peers from other schools when, in fact, they have habits and conceptions that need to be un-learned.

Larry J said...

Anything that results in fewer lawyers finding work is a good thing. Not for the individuals, of course, but for the country as a whole. Fewer lawyers finding work is a major factor in declining law school enrollments. Getting from today's figure of one lawyer for every 300 Americans to a more rational number, say one per thousand, will take time but it's a worthwhile goal.

Zeb Quinn said...

Demand for lawyers has proven itself quite elastic, and correlates to economic conditions. In recession demand shrinks. Despite Teh Won's very best efforts I'm sure, the economy is still fairly moribund, 5 years in and still counting. Or, as Clinton-Gore once put it, it's the economy stupid.

FleetUSA said...

#3 is the critical element here in my opinion because law firms and corporations want lawyers in a "plain vanilla" format. They want the new lawyers to be adaptable for whatever situations the employers need.

It is too easy to get pigeonholed after 3 years of real world work experience, why start that before you get a job?

elkh1 said...

1. Practice-ready lawyers don't cause there to be more jobs openings.

What law schools need is more badly written laws so every citizen can step on the law-mines at anytime and need a lawyer to extricate him.

5. Law firms pride themselves in their own corporate culture, they would rather mold the newbies in their own image.

Ann Althouse said...

"Employers do not find academia's attempt to replicate real world law practice useful. Graduates of the program possess a false confidence that they are more ready for practice than their peers from other schools when, in fact, they have habits and conceptions that need to be un-learned."

Also, if they spent time learning one thing then there was something else that was displaced.

Traditional lawprofs have long believed that we are teaching the higher-level reading and analysis skills.

YoungHegelian said...

Did W&L do a lot of preference surveys at law firms of various types & sizes to see what the law firms were looking for in a junior lawyer? Or, did the faculty set up their "experiential" program to reflect what they thought law firms were looking for?

What one's customers are really looking for, and what customers get are often two very different things.

Mogget said...

#6. Graduates of this program have not yet learned how to present their experiences in a way that makes them more desirable.

#7. Lack of time and enough graduates for the benefits to be noted by employers and attributed to experiential learning opportunities.

#8. Unwillingness on the part of employers to take a chance on a new idea in otherwise unsettled times.

jimbino said...

The way to open jobs to the truly qualified is to abolish all certification, as Milton Friedman advocated.

It never ceases to amaze me that a 13-year-old woman has the right to create and nurture a child without experience, education or certification of any kind! Indeed, the young woman often will not face a certification requirement until she tries to cut someone else's hair! What a country!

Trying to apply logic and reason to law, medicine, education, healthcare or any other area showing deep gummint involvement is a fool's errand.

Paul Zrimsek said...

3. (to which your own #3 can be be renumbered 3a and serve as one possible explanation): Aiming to make students practice-ready and actually making them practice-ready are two different things.

Peter said...

Surely it's possible that the law school is turning out better-prepared lawyers but the employers' selection process is not rational?

People in strange cities often eat in chain restaurants- they may not be very good, but they're not horrible and you know exactly what you're going to get.

Perhaps that's the logic of employers' selection process- they just want standard product?

Michael K said...

Based on my very limited experience with lawyers (Two kids), I would suggest that non-Humanities backgrounds would be a huge boost to finding a job.

My older son spent ten years doing construction defect defense work. Some of his cases involved such matters as the quality of concrete used in the soil of southern California. A background in soil engineering or civil engineering would have been a huge boon. He learned his soil engineering on the job but jobs were easier to find when he began and he had worked for law firms as a clerk when in law school.

My older daughter had a business degree and several years of family law experience (which she didn't like) before she joined the FBI.

Any business or technical background would be a better match I should think. When I was a medical student in 1962, a Los Angeles personal injury lawyer talked the medical school into letting her take the first two years of medical school as a student. She loved it and became great friends with her class. She then resumed her practice. As I recall, she passed her courses with no preceding pre-med background but I could be wrong. She was about 40 at the time.

Skyler said...

It seems to me that there are two types of people going to law school: Those who want to be in a firm, and those who want to work solo. Those working solo would be the ones most likely to choose this program, so they will be less likely to want to find a job.

bagoh20 said...

#3 seems valid for me. The wrong experience is worse than none for many employers. We have our own systems and values, and the better hire is someone most ready to assimilate into that without resistance. We hate hearing how "so and so did things at my old job", because we all think we are better than the other place, and know the best methods. So shut up and listen, Sparky.

Us employers are such assholes -
kinda like lawyers, so when you put both together into one, you get a super-asshole who won't hire your experience.

Michael K said...

I was kidding about my limited experience with layers. I have done many years of work as an expert witness in both med-mal civil suits and trauma case criminal suits. In my opinion, many, many lawyers don't know how to use experts and don't know how to try cases. You would think they would seek some other area of law if they didn't know how to try cases but maybe they had no choice.

At one time, I seriously considered writing a book on how to use experts with my ex-wife who does a lot of expert work for the FDIC on banking matters and our older son. I never did but it might be helpful if someone did.

FWBuff said...

I don't mind teaching (and I expect to teach) the new lawyers that we hire how to draft an easement. What I don't expect to do is to teach them the real-estate-law concepts behind the different types of easements. Nor do I want to teach them basic grammar and writing. They have the rest of their professional lives to learn (and hone) their practice skills. Law school needs to focus on legal theory, analytical skills, and good communication.

David said...

Law school clinical programs have never been very good, even at the better law schools. They do not teach much that will be helpful, and what they do teach will be learned quickly in a practice by competent young lawyer.

By and large the programs are structured, administered and taught by law professors. The programs are, however, evaluated by employers. The grade is pretty low. Rate your professors!

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

To put it more succinctly, the professor might consider explanation 5.

"The program isn't any good."

Strelnikov said...

Speaking as lawyer for 30+ years who has hired many associates, it's #3.

In order for this to work, and I do think it could have value, they would need to be able to do simple, practical things. As the old saw goes, law school prepares you to argue a case before the Supreme Court competently, but to file a small claims case incompetently. The problem with most law clinic is that they are "experential" not actual experience. As long as law profs are in charge it will stay that way, since so few of them could file the small claims case but they all know a criminal defendant being oppressed by the system when they see one.

Somebody said...

The "signaling" value of a more selective law school trumps the value of a practice-oriented education. Employers want to hire the smartest kids and teach them the nuts and bolts. Whether the graduates of more selective schools really are smarter is another thing. What matters is that employers think they are.

Leit Bart said...

@Drew Cloutier -- which singular "program" are you referring to? With apologies in advance if I've misread you, humility falls on a bell curve just like everything else; don't blanketly label every law student who is trying to get experience as impossibly arrogant and full of bad "habits." Some are, some aren't. How about calling most of them "confident go-getters" instead?

There are superb clinics out there in certain law schools. Criminal clinics, especially, give students REAL -- not "la la la experiential" -- experience.

That said, a really good clinic can also sort of ruin you, and "big law" employers know this. Real experience -- hearings and trials -- makes "practice" (i.e., research) at a big firm tedious, boring and, eventually, impossible to tolerate (unless you have big debts or a big bottle of Prozac).

But this can be fixed. Since you can't bill them out, let young lawyers carry pro bono dockets; take them to hearings, let them watch the firm's once-in-a-decade jury trial, and its multiple arbitrations; accept small cases (and smaller fees) to give young lawyers lawsuits they can start and see through to the finish. Also? Firms could stop telling their summer clerks how much real experience they'll get as new lawyers, unless it's true. (And to students clerking? Ask the partners, gently, after several drinks, how many total jury trials they've had. Nah. That's too ballsy for even a client to ask. Scratch that.)

Institutional clients are helping, too. As long as clients increasingly refuse to pay the invoices of first-year lawyers, firms will have little choice but to value new lawyers who require less on-the-job, firm-subsidized training.

Best of all, the profession will finally return to good old-fashioned, market-based self-selection. People who choose law not because they love it, but primarily for its income . . . will start petering out. Stats on recent law school applications bear this out.


Drew Cloutier said...

@Ann--I agree if "higher-level" means "highly critical". I learned a great deal in hard law school classes that have little, or even nothing, to do with my practice.

@Leit--Clinical classes can be well done and meaningful. My comment was directed at W&L's efforts to make its grads more employable by empahsizing new clinics. Clinics, and especially a slew of new clinics, do not make law school grads more practice ready. While a well-done clinic will develop some skills, it is still academic.

stlcdr said...

'Practical' learning is a last recourse when you can't learn anything else.

As noted, when you teach an additional thing, another thing is displaced. Practical skills tend to displace theoretical skills. But that's all the rage, today.

While theoretical skills - and a broad range of understanding of a field - tend to not appear to be immediately useful, in the medium term, the value far exceeds the practical skills that may have been learned. Indeed, practical skills can be learned in a far, far shorter period of time in the real world than in an academic setting.

There's a reason [general aviation] pilots learn to fly by jumping in an airplane straight away.

Bottom line, this experiment is destined to fail, and is a huge step backwards.