Los Angeles (May 11, 2012)—According to Wall Street Journal blogger Sam Favate, an old debate has currently been given new life: is practical hands-on learning more valuable than theoretical knowledge? In an April 30, 2012 post “California Bar Considering Practical Skills Mandate for New Lawyers” Favate reports that the California Bar may be mandating more hands-on legal education for law school graduates starting in the near future. Requirements being considered include internships, mentoring programs, and completion of a skills-training course. Many of these types of requirements are already in place at many California law schools; what is new? A mandate from the Bar requiring such courses for graduation.
Finding the right balance between practical skills and academic knowledge is the challenge the Bar confronts. Most working professionals know that having experience and understanding are often crucial for success. If most people agree that law school graduates should have academic knowledge as well as practical experience, what is the problem? The problem is this: how do law schools get new lawyers to have both the academic understanding of the law as well as a high comfort level with practicing—personal injury, divorce, criminal—or any kind of law? How can the right balance between practical know-how and theoretical knowledge be achieved in a formal educational setting?
The California Bar may make the requirements a new reality when they announce their suggestions in December of 2013. These graduation requirements may greatly improve the education that California’s new lawyers receive. Some schools already require such practical skills in their curriculum. At UC Irvine, for instance, law students are all required to complete a clinical experience in which they represent real clients. Though the students are under close supervision, they do get some very practical experience in the program.
The School of Law at UC Irvine is not alone. According to UC Berkeley Law Professor Charles Weisselberg who is quoted in a recent Bloomberg BNA story, getting practical training in the law is nearly at every law school in the state. If this is the case, is a mandate really required from the California Bar?
Internships, mentoring programs, and lawyering skills classes may better prepare new lawyers. However, some experts are not convinced that the Bar should be imposing requirements on law schools. UC Irvine School of Law’s Founding Dean argues that law schools should be left to make their own decisions about how to best educate students. The Bar, he suggests, should continue serving and protecting the public but leave education to the schools.
Perhaps California will follow the 25 other states and the District of Columbia that do require some sort of practicum or skills training. Even if the requirements are made a reality after the Bar’s recommendation in 2013, measuring the effects of such a change will take many, many years.