I’d like all the lawyers and law students out there to reflect for a minute on what they learned in law school. Think hard. Now—for the lawyers—did any of what you learned in school help you when you began practicing? No? But isn’t that what law school is supposed to do?
Many practitioners, if they’re honest with you, will tell you that the work they do is pretty unrelated to what they learned in school. Sure, they took a Civil Procedure class, they learned how to apply the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and they took an exam on the material. A couple years later, they re-learned Civil Procedure for the Bar Exam. You might think that they had a pretty good handle on, well, Civil Procedure. But you would think wrong. Though a substantive knowledge of the law is helpful, it’s only part of what it means to be a practicing attorney. An attorney needs to not only know the Rules, but also needs to know how to do the things the Rules are asking for. Can the attorney draft a complaint? An answer? An interrogatory? What about pre-trial motions?
Most of the duties of a new lawyer include drafting documents even more basic than those I just mentioned. A new associate might draft a client letter, or a memo to a higher level associate or partner. These skills aren’t really part of the core curriculum of law schools, however.
So what is a law student to do?
Go out of your way to take the advanced legal writing courses taught at your school. If you can, work in one of your school’s clinical programs or clerkships. If you didn’t get the highly-prized summer associate position you wanted, volunteer with a nonprofit or look into unpaid internships with government agencies. Write as much as you can, for as many audiences as possible.
I recognize that not every student gets the opportunity to participate in a clinic or internship, and that’s truly unfortunate. But some schools are looking to change the way they educate new lawyers—to take the focus off academia, and put it on practical skills.
Changing the Curriculum
JoAnne Epps, the dean of Temple University Beasley School of Law, has an interesting opinion piece on the subject in The National Law Journal. She argues that the time has come for the law school curriculum to become more focused on what graduates will actually be doing for the rest of their lives and less focused on appellate opinions and scholarship. Some schools are already on the bandwagon. Epps says that they’re trying to blend practical skills with scholarship at Temple, and they’re not alone. At Wisconsin, I had the opportunity as a third year student to work as a teaching assistant with first year students in a class that melded Civil Procedure with Legal Writing. The students did draft complaints, answers, interrogatories, and pre-trial motions. They took their case through all the stages, negotiating with the opposing counsel, and then going to a mock trial. It was amazing to see how the students’ knowledge of the law grew, and how they were able to put that knowledge into practice. I think it would be wonderful to see more of this kind of learning environment.
If students demand more hands-on learning from their schools, we just might see some positive changes. So sign up for those advanced legal writing courses. Apply for every clinical your school offers. Tell your administrators you’d like to take a contract drafting course. Hopefully we’ll start to see a curriculum that gives students the skills they need.