• News
  • Law

A profession engaged in educating its next generation

Related Special Reports

In my roles as a law school dean and as chair of the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, I have become aware that it is very important to increase the involvement of the bench and bar in legal education. There are great opportunities for expanding the education that law students experience by actively involving judges and lawyers. Legal education clearly extends well beyond what students learn in law school classes, and I have been working to identify ways the bench and bar can help educators improve legal education -- to help make law school "what it ought to be."

Dean Steven Smith

The bench and bar, of course, are already active participants in legal education. For example, the ABA's accreditation of law schools brings together the bench, bar and academy, as well as the public, in setting standards and applying them to law schools. Lawyers and judges teach courses and internships in every law school, which adds breadth to the curriculum and an important element of the real world to law students. Lawyers and judges also commonly serve on law school advisory committees, contribute most of the private funds law schools receive, assist schools with career services and act as mentors for students.

While these traditional activities are enormously important, it is time to reconsider and expand the role of the bench and bar in legal education. Legal education is not just what happens in law school courses. Although McCrate described it as a continuum that starts well before law school and lasts throughout our careers, I am focusing on the time between application to law school and a year after passing the bar examination.

Each law school and each bar association should consciously think about how the bench and bar can participate effectively in legal education. Here are five "starter" ideas:

1. We should recognize the importance of what the first clerking or professional experience teaches. It is, for most law students, a seminal event in the way they will view the law and the profession. Except for a small percentage of students who have attorneys in the family or have meaningful law firm work experience, most go into that first experience with very little prior contact with the legal system. They understand that law school is not like the real law world and they have a strong desire to fit in with real lawyers. Think how different the impression of the profession must be for a student who goes to the most ethical firm in town, compared to one who goes to the worst. In short, many students are quite professionally impressionable and the attorneys they see and interact with are likely to define the legal profession for them.

Despite the importance, neither law schools nor most practitioners have worked to ensure that this first work experience contributes to the education of new professionals in a positive way. Law schools might do a better job of preparing students for their early work experiences by providing an opportunity for students to discuss both good and bad experiences during "debriefing" sessions after summer clerkships. Law firms should be deliberate about what they want to teach law students who work for them. They will be role models and teachers for the students they employ, whether for good or bad.

2. We ought to expand the ways judges and lawyers are part of formal curriculum offerings. Currently they serve as adjuncts responsible for a whole course, single lecture speakers, and clinical supervisors. These are very important, but not sufficiently imaginative. We could increase team teaching so that full-time faculty and adjuncts are offering a seminar together. Students might be assigned to work with a judge or lawyer in completing a class assignment. Practitioners and judges might serve as "second readers" on student papers, presenting students with an additional perspective on their work.

3. We can find more ways for attorneys and judges to work with student organizations. They might sponsor professional events, serve as guest speakers for meetings, host social outings or help fund student activities related to their areas of practice. Some of this happens now, but students should be encouraged to make use of this valuable resource, and organizations of lawyers should expand their outreach to students. Bar associations and bar sections should include law students in pro bono activities they undertake. What great opportunities for both students and lawyers.

4. We must take new attorneys seriously. We can envy the medical profession where formal education is only half done by graduation. Both the practicing law professionals and law schools need to give more thought to how the education of new lawyers can be continued more effectively. This may be one area in which we have lost ground in recent decades. Many law firms used to be much more attentive to the education of their new associates. "Bridge the gap" programs and "initial CLE" requirements are a nice start, but inadequate. All groups in the profession need to think more seriously about substantial, formal programs for introducing new lawyers to the profession and practice.

5. The bench and bar need to be better advocates for legal education. Attorneys and judges commonly serve on university boards of trustees, state higher education boards and legislative bodies. Among their other responsibilities, they should understand and be advocates for high quality legal education. In my experience, physicians, engineers and other professionals are much more likely to include advocacy for their professions in their community involvement. The portfolio each of us carries should include advocacy for legal education.

There are so many possibilities. Happily, most of them would not cost much. They require imagination, cooperation and concerted effort. Law schools ought to find ways of making this happen, and their colleagues in the profession should consider how they could make it easy. Our students, new lawyers and the profession will be the better for it.

Smith is dean of California Western School of Law. He is serving as chair of the American Bar Association Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar for the 2005-2006 academic year.

User Response
0 UserComments