On Law School Clinics

The latest issue of Stanford Lawyer magazine (for alumni of Stanford Law School) arrived the other day, and new Dean Larry Kramer’s introductory piece, “The Necessity of Clinical Education,” includes this eye-catching paragraph:

We cannot and should not rely on employers to provide this vital component of a proper legal education. That’s our job, not theirs. Law firms and agencies are set up to serve clients, not teach. They do not choose cases for their pedagogical value. Nor can they purposely maintain low case-loads to ensure that each case is used as an effective teaching tool. No law firm has a weekly seminar in which lawyers meet to reflect on the practical and theoretical lessons gleaned from their work with clients.

The Dean is rightly praising Stanford’s tremendous law clinics. But does he need to let law firms (in particular) off so lightly?

“Law firms and agencies are set up to serve clients, not teach.” How do they serve their clients responsibly if younger lawyers aren’t constantly being trained, and re-trained?

“They do not choose cases for their pedagogical value.” If you’re thinking like a teacher, almost all cases have pedagogical value.

“Nor can they purposely maintain low case-loads to ensure that each case is used as an effective teaching tool.” Nor do they need to. Law firms are reluctant to spend time teaching and training, but it’s not because they don’t have the time. It’s because they’re not willing to invest the money. Take a given law firm, and ask the partners whether they’d prefer to (a) cut profitability in order to invest firm resources — partner time — in teaching and training their own lawyers or (b) outsource teaching and training to law schools or third-party consultants. I’d say that for most law firms, the answer is (b).

“No law firm has a weekly seminar in which lawyers meet to reflect on the practical and theoretical lessons gleaned from their work with clients.” Why not? Imagine a law firm (or other legal services organization) where this happened. Would this lead to happier lawyers? Increased retention of junior lawyers? Unhappier lawyers? Lower retention? Better quality of representation? Worse? Shouldn’t the law schools be asking these questions about the state of the profession, instead of taking the answers for granted?

There are lots of reasons for law schools to invest in strong clinical programs. “Because law firms are iniquitous dens of profit-mongering, and that’s just the way things are” — my cynical revision of the Dean’s argument — strikes me as a bad one.

One thought on “On Law School Clinics

  1. I really agree with your comment that law firms should have some sort of weekly practice meeting. It’s hard to do — it takes a good faith commitment from the leaders of the institution (in this case, a law firm) to keep it on track and meaningful. It also takes an open institutional culture that allows its members to be on stage for an hour to receive debate and criticism.

    But it’s a lovely way to learn.

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