Thought Experiment: Why Not A Teaching Law Firm To Increase Experiential Learning?

USBank Tower Richelieu Lecture Hall

As Mike Madison has noted almost two years ago, in general innovations in law school curriculum have not kept pace with business schools. That may be changing. Washington & Lee has made a splash by changing its curriculum to an experiential model. Irvine says it will embrace it. Vanderbilt, not to mention Harvard, University of New Mexico, Georgetown and others have versions of the idea in place. (Note that Northeastern’s Co-Op system has used an experienced-based approach for some time). These shifts may open the door to even more innovation. Still, underlying this move is a fundamental question: What should a law school be?

Many views can drive the analysis. Law firms, clients, students, and law faculties all have opinions on the matter. One answer is seen in a comment to Leiter’s post about W&L. The idea seems to be that a law student will be ready to practice on day one. In other words there seems to be a training gap. Law firms and clients want first year associates to be ready to go. Indeed, law practice might be shifting. As I noted before, some firms have changed how they handle first year associates by reducing or eliminating the billable hour requirement as way to improve associate retention. In its place comes a requirement to shadow associates and partners as a way to learn the job. Part of this change comes from large corporate clients who refuse to pay to train first year associates.

So law firms might be happier if students were fully trained. Clients have much the same view. Students are in the same place. Yet these demands may be irrational. A reflection on medical education helps see why. There is much to say regarding the way the two professions differ and how training varies. For now one reflect on these points. Medical students graduate with more debt than law students, enter residencies of about three to seven years at around $40,000/year, and then are fully trained to be in practice (note: a true general practice doctor takes one year of training though such physicians are increasingly rare).

Yes, I am suggesting that the idea that medical students’ clinical work is vastly superior to the externships, clinics, and the like that many law students undertake is a myth. Medical school may be more formal about these issues, but it is not a substitute for the internship and residency years. None of these points argues that law schools cannot improve these opportunities and their curriculum. Indeed, insofar as these changes will improve how the law is taught I applaud and hope to be part of them. Still, the point is to what end?

In short, a demand that law schools train a law student so that future employers will not have to train them is odd, for few, if any, professional schools operate on this model. Yet there may be a solution: a teaching law firm. Such a firm would have live cases and full time attorneys who teach as part of their jobs much like medical professors at teaching hospitals. Indeed, I believe there is a labor pool that would like such a position (think: of counsels). Ironically, big firms, small firms, and students may not like such an institution.

A teaching law firm will be a competitor. In some cases it may take on the high-profile cases of that a big firm might. In others, it may take on cases that solo and small firms might take. Students may not be pleased as they may be making less for the first few years. (Of course often one career path is to take a position with a D.A. or P.D., be paid a decent amount compared to a medical resident, be trained along the way, and then go to private practice for the big money).

Overall, however, insofar as there are gaps in service be they in public or private sector areas (i.e. more megafirms and more solo firms with fewer middle-sized firms able to help the business and legal needs of individuals and small businesses), a teaching law firm could fill that gap. Each firm would be able to meet market needs in the region. Furthermore, it may generate capital that could reduce fees for law school.

The possibilities are present. Will a law school take the chance and start one or affiliate with an existing practice? I think someone will in the near future. More on this idea and the general issue of legal education later.

Image 1: WikiCommons
License: Public Domain

Image 2: Wikicommons
License: GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

cross-posted at Concurring Opinions

Hat Tip and thanks: Mike Madison, Mike Carroll, Frank Pasquale, and Al Brophy have all induged me with time and feedback as I thought through these ideas. So I offer my thanks.

3 thoughts on “Thought Experiment: Why Not A Teaching Law Firm To Increase Experiential Learning?

  1. As a lawyer practising in England it always struck me as unrealistic the idea that in the US lawyers emerge from law school fully formed.

    In England, for those that don’t know, the typical path to qualification as a lawyer (solicitor) is an undergraduate degree (any subject), one or two years at law school (depending whether your undergraduate degree was in law or not) and a two year (paid) training contract at a law firm, where billable hours targets are considerably lower than for associates (1000 vs 1600, say). At the end of this process you will officially “qualify” as an associate and be added to the roll of solicitors (i.e. be allowed to dispense legal advice).

    The training contract system, in my view, works very well and is designed to give trainees experience in different practice areas (typically 4, sometimes 6). It is only at the end of this process that the decisions as to (i) whether you’ll be “kept on” and (ii) what area of specialism you will practice in are made. It’s worth noting, thought, that retention rates amongst the big firms are typically upwards of 90%.

    Even under the English sytem, many junior associates find the move from trainee to junior associate quite daunting as the level of responsibilty entrusted to juniors does tend to switch gear quite dramatically (as do the charge-out rates). But I’d imagine it’s much less of a jump than that of law school student to law firm associate in the US.

    I think it is generally accepted that the system in England works well enough, though in recent years law firms have been pressurising law school providers (successfully) to offer bespoke courses more tailored to the work of particular firm (note that law firms tend to sponsor students through law school – so you may have 100 future trainees of a large firm at the same law school attending the classes their future firm wants them to).

    “Teaching law firms”, therefore, is fairly close to what we’ve got in England already.

  2. Paul

    Forgive the American trying to use a British term but I think “Spot on!” is the proper phrase here.

    Thanks for the point. I knew a bout the contract system but not in any detail. I look forward to reading your papers too.


  3. Another, probably uncomfortable thought from a practitioner: It is far easier to become a lawyer in the U.S. than it is a physician. Mainly that is because it is far more difficult to gain admission to medical school than to an accredited law school. The result, I think, is that the average licensed physician is intellectually superior by a long shot to the average licensed lawyer — smarter to begin with; better educated in part by virtue of having shared years of education in the company of other especially smart individuals; more disciplined intellectually as evidenced by having succeeded in a more rigorous educational environment. If the legal establishment guarded the gates as closely as the medical establishment does, the result would be better lawyers at least in the sense of intellectual capability.

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