Preparing the Next Generation of Lawyers to Practice

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Judges and lawyers have been complaining for years that law school students are not practice ready, and therefore require expensive and time-consuming on-the-job training. Law students themselves have complained that about spending $150,000 to pay for a three-year legal education that does not prepare them to practice law--leaving them with huge debt and poor employment options. In response, law schools have been re-evaluating their traditional programs and offerings in an effort to improve overall practice readiness of graduating law students and, in turn, improve their employment outcomes. One cutting edge law school program has been Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program (DWS) at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. DWS was created by the New Hampshire School of Law, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners. What makes DWS different is that it's a two-year program combining experiential training with ongoing assessment. Upon graduation, DWS students don't sit for the two-day bar exam. Instead, DWS students are evaluated for bar admission based on their performance in the program.

The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System's (IAALS) Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers (EDL) initiative just released a report evaluating DWS students called Ahead of the Curve: Turning Law Students into Lawyers. (IAALS is a think tank that partners with a consortium of law schools and leaders from the legal profession to use research and data to create solutions that are both innovative and practical. Part of its mission is to "identify innovative models of legal education that ensure knowledgeable, ethical, and practice-ready professionals." I was fortunate to be a participant at its 3rd Annual Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Conference in Denver.)

The report identifies hallmarks of the DWS program as:

  • "intense exposure of students to the actual practice of law,"
  • "powerful innovations in formative and reflective assessment,"
  • "intimate involvement of the entire state of New Hampshire’s legal community," and
  • "acceleration of legal competence that the program fosters in students".

So the question is, does DWS work? Does it produce new lawyers who are ready to work, and therefore more employable in a tight legal market?

Ahead of the Curve concludes absolutely yes.

Compared with new lawyers who spend their first few years learning to practice, DWS graduates are able to hit the ground running, working with clients and taking a lead role on cases immediately....

Supervisors and peers of alumni perceive DWS graduates as a better investment than other new graduates because they require fewer training resources in their first years as associates....

Supervisors and peers of alumni reported that because DWS graduates have real world experience, they are comfortable in practice settings and not easily flustered when things go differently than planned. The confidence of DWS graduates translates to clients feeling more confident with their representation. Judges agreed that a significant part of the success of DWS graduates is their confidence from having two years of practical exposure prior to beginning practice. Finally, students and faculty reflected on the development of DWS graduates’ confidence throughout the program. They agreed that as DWS scholars have the opportunity to practice real world skills, their confidence in their abilities increases.

Obviously not every law student has access to DWS. But if you're a law student, then this report should emphasis to you how important it is to gain practical skills -- including workplace skills and client relationship skills -- while in law school. As you go through law school, look outside the classroom for learning opportunities. If you're a second-career law student, then you may already have a leg up on some of these skills. Demonstrate those skills to employers in your resume, cover letter, and interviews.

Just remember, many law firms don't want to -- and can't afford to -- spend years training you. They are looking for entry-level lawyers who can do more than legal research and writing. They're looking for entry-level lawyers can hit the ground running, interviewing clients, drafting pleadings, and conducting themselves as mature professionals with sound judgment. So get out there!