Professional Skills

May 2nd, 2018 / By

Robert Kuehn has written a thoughtful review of the history of professional skills education in legal education. As Bob notes, the ABA has been notably reluctant to require law schools to educate students on the skills they will use in law practice. Our accrediting body did not require any instruction in professional skills until 2005 and, even then, the accreditors required only “one solid credit” of that training. More recently, the ABA mandated six credits of experiential work for every law student–a total that still seems grudging for skills that lawyers use heavily in practice.

Students and some law schools have been more foresighted. As Bob documents, one-fifth of law schools now require all students to complete a clinic or externship; ninety percent have enough clinic or externship spots to accommodate all of their students. Students, meanwhile, show increasing interest in learning professional skills: enrollments in clinics, externships, and simulation courses have all climbed during the last decade.

This is a good news/bad news report. Student demand for professional training has increased, schools have shown an ability to meet that demand, and the ABA has finally imposed a meaningful requirement for experiential education. At the same time, tenure-track faculty continue to distance themselves from these educational experiences and the six-credit requirement is unrealistically light for students who will build their professional success on their skills.

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The Second Class Among Us

January 4th, 2018 / By

Bob Kuehn has posted a sobering analysis of the status and salaries of clinical, externship, and legal writing faculty. It should be no surprise that most of these professors lack tenure–and that they earn significantly less than the faculty who teach courses without significant writing or clinical components. The size of the differences, however, may take some tenure-track faculty aback.

Who are the colleagues who suffer lower pay and status? Overwhelmingly, they are women. More than 70% of legal writing professors and externship supervisors are women; about 60% of clinical professors are female. These are striking differences in a profession that is still male dominated in many ways.

I will have more to say about these differences over the coming days. For now, take a look at Bob’s data and think about some new year’s resolutions.

Update: I did not mention professors who teach academic support or bar preparation courses in this post, because I do not have the type of national data Bob gathered for legal writing and clinical professors. Academic support and bar preparation are among the most essential courses we offer in law schools–yet the faculty teaching them are at best second class. I will write more about these key professors soon.

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The ABA Intends To Hold Law Schools Accountable

March 16th, 2016 / By

The good news keeps coming for law school reform advocates. The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has taken its next affirmative step towards holding law schools accountable for their exploitative admissions and retention choices.

Soon, the Council for the Section of Legal Education will publish the proposed ABA accreditation standard changes for public comment. The Council will assess any new information it obtains and consider approving the new standards in October. Although the Council is the final authority for law school accreditation, the ABA House of Delegates will vote in February. The process allows the House a formal but non-binding say in new standards.

Let’s review the proposals. (more…)

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Path Cleared for Paid Externships

March 15th, 2016 / By

The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar took several significant actions at its March 11–12 meeting. The first of these was approval of several changes in Standards 304 and 305, which govern experiential learning and non-classroom educational experiences. Some of the changes adjust guidelines for supervision of externships; the most controversial allows schools to award externship credit for paid positions.

I have written several times to express my support for this change. Individual schools may still choose to ban paid externships, but the path should soon be open for schools to integrate these externships within their educational programs. The ABA House of Delegates will vote on the change, probably at its August 2016 meeting, but that vote does not bind the Council. [Updated at 4:45 p.m. to correct meaning of ABA’s vote.]

The responsibility now lies with law schools to implement this change wisely. I supported the change because I hope it will help us find innovative ways to educate students more thoroughly for law practice, as well as to help employers develop lasting frameworks for education in the workplace. We won’t accomplish either of those goals unless law schools devote real resources, energy, and collaboration to working with employers on these externships.

If your law school has an innovative idea for creating paid externships–or if you’re an individual with such an idea–please send me an email ( I hope to feature good ideas here and promote discussion around them. Few ideas are perfect at their inception but, through discussion and sharing, perhaps we can refine ideas that will achieve our educational goals. Consider it online workshopping of pedagogic ideas!


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Education and Employment

February 6th, 2016 / By

The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is once again considering amendments to Standards 304 and 305 in order to permit externship credit for paid work. As I have written before, I support that change. When granting academic credit, the quality of the experience counts–not whether the student was paid for the work.

I have heard about unpaid externships that offered very little educational content. Conversely, I know of terrific externship placements (with both nonprofit and for-profit employers) that required students to choose between academic credit and pay under our current rules. I see no clear line between pay and educational value. Nor does a black letter rule seem appropriate for a learned profession: Surely ethical educators can determine which externships deserve academic credit.

The debate, meanwhile, raises a more troubling issue. If education and paid employment are incompatible, as some comments on the ABA proposal suggest, then we have lost an essential element of our professionalism. It’s possible that we have lost that element, but I think it’s worth reflecting on the issue.


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Paid Externships

June 8th, 2015 / By

The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has agreed to hold hearings on a proposal that would allow law schools to grant academic credit for paid externships. I favor the proposal because it might encourage the development of innovative partnerships between employers and the academy. I also hope the proposal would ease the financial burden on law students although, as I explain below, this is unlikely to happen. Instead, law schools need to consider other options for reducing that burden.

Employers and Externships

Advocates of paid externships have urged that, given the high cost of law school tuition, students shouldn’t have to choose between paid jobs and unpaid externships. I agree that students shouldn’t have to make this choice, and that we should do as much as possible to lower law school tuition. Unfortunately, however, the proposed ABA rule change will create few paid externships.

The problem is that employers have no incentive to turn paid positions into externships. Creating and maintaining an externship imposes administrative burdens on employers. Some employers will accept those burdens in return for free labor; they hope that the externship rubric and university participation will create an exemption from the minimum wage laws. But if an employer is already complying with those laws by paying a law student for her work, what incentive does the employer have to submit to a law school’s oversight through an externship program?

There may be some employers that are willing to do this; that’s why I support the proposed change in law school accreditation standards. That change, however, offers no guarantee that employers will embrace paid externships. I suspect that relatively few will do so.

Alternative Paths

If we want to lower the cost of attending law school and/or give students more experiential learning opportunities, law schools have other choices. One option is to “decelerate” law school by allowing students to attend school part-time for the same total cost they would pay as full-time students. Currently, most part-time programs cost more overall than a full-time program would. Even summer credits cost more than academic-year ones at some schools. These pricing schemes penalize students for their need (or desire) to combine work and study.

Another option for many law schools is simply to reduce the number of credits required for graduation. ABA Standard 311 requires that students complete at least 83 credit hours to earn the JD. A quick google search, however, reveals that many law schools require more hours than that minimum. Schools that want to ease their students’ ability to work part-time for pay could simply reduce the credits they require for graduation. While they’re at it, they could reduce tuition to reflect the reduced demand on teaching resources.

Law schools could pursue either of these options today, without waiting for ABA hearings or rule changes. We could also develop other approaches to restraining the cost of legal education and enhancing its value. Don’t get me wrong: permitting paid externships is a worthwhile change. But I predict that the change will have little impact on the cost of legal education. If we want to lower those costs, we have to do the work ourselves.

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Three Adaptations to Attract Applicants

December 3rd, 2013 / By

I wrote earlier this week about three forces that will continue to dampen law school applications, even if overall employment rates improve. Those forces are (1) the greater transparency of job outcomes, (2) the changed composition of those jobs, and (3) the narrowing of entry-level career choices. These trends may have little impact on the fortunes of a few top-ranked schools, but I think other law schools would be wise to consider them. Here are three suggestions for responding to these forces.

Stress Career Paths Rather than Options

Law schools have traditionally stressed the flexibility of a JD, noting the many career paths that follow from legal education. It is true that lawyers pursue many careers, but the immediate choices for individual graduates are relatively constrained in today’s market. Law students, moreover, have to specialize early in law school to compete for some of those positions.

Rather than fight these facts, we should capitalize on them. After working with millennial law students for several years, I’ve observed that they often ask for designated paths. They are less likely than last century’s students to seek open-ended options. Instead, they want to know how to get from “A” (the first day of law school) to “Z” (an entry-level job as a prosecutor).

Today’s applicants, I think, would respond well to specialized programs–as long as the programs offer demonstrated pay-offs in the job market. The next era of transparency may measure outcomes for particular programs. If a law school designs a program for future prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, and if 90% of students completing the program secure one of those jobs, that will impress applicants. The same principle would hold for other areas of law practice or particular settings, like small firms.

Schools could easily create these paths with existing courses, clinics, externships, and extracurricular activities. The building blocks are there; we just need to switch our mindset from one that favors options to one that focuses on paths. We also have to be willing to articulate these paths and measure success rates. If we create successful paths with demonstrated results, and share that information honestly with prospective students, I think that applicants will respond.

If you’re tempted to resist specialization, consider this: Document review requires no specialized education–any law school graduate can do it. Don’t you want something better for your graduates?

Blend Education and Employment

Government agencies, mid-sized law firms, small firms, and businesses hire most of our graduates. These employers care about people skills, personal qualities, and hands-on experience. They want new employees who already possess those skills and experience; better yet, they like to hire graduates who have already worked for them as summer clerks, part-time employees, or externs.

It’s a buyer’s market, so there’s no point arguing with employers about these preferences. The preferences make sense from the employer’s perspective, and they carry pedagogic weight as well. Some of the best learning occurs when students can combine classroom and workplace experiences.

Law schools already encourage students to work during the summer, permit upper-level students to work part-time during the school year, and field an impressive number of externship programs. We can build on that base to create more dynamic programs that blend education and employment in more central ways.

In part, this requires a simple attitude shift. Rather than treating externships and part-time jobs as necessary evils that compete for classroom time, we should embrace these experiences as positive additions to our students’ learning. We should take those workplace demands into account when scheduling classes. We should also consider charging by the credit hour, rather than the semester, so that students can integrate classroom and workplace experiences year-round without paying extra for summer classes or a seventh semester.

Most important, our faculties should engage with the organizations that employ our students. What do our students do for those agencies, firms, or businesses? How does that work fit with their classroom experiences? Are there doctrinal principles or skills that the employers would really like to see taught on campus? Are there experiences they would be willing to offer that would complement classroom work?

Too often, we draw a line between campus and the workplace, announcing that we will teach up to the line while employers provide everything else. Why not negotiate the line? Or work together during the students’ three years to create the best overall learning experience?

Blended learning fits well with my first recommendation, the creation of professional paths. A student who wants to become a commercial real estate lawyer should not have to figure out the right assortment of classes, internships, and jobs; she should be able to rely on the cooperative discussion of professors and lawyers in the field.

Create an Undergraduate Major in Law

I’ve written before about the benefits of creating an undergraduate law major. In addition to those benefits, an undergraduate law major would allow legal education to retain the “option maximizer” aura that JD programs used to enjoy. BA’s with a law major could pursue the jobs open to other liberal arts graduates, as well as some of the “JD Advantage” jobs. These graduates could also, of course, choose to attend law school. A law major encompassing half of our current JD training wouldn’t allow graduates to “do anything,” but it would open numerous doors in the entry-level, post-college job market.

Under this framework, JD programs would offer two years of more advanced training. Those programs would lend themselves well to the specializations and blended classroom/workplace learning described above. Taken together, a BA+JD program would strike the right balance between options and specialization.

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Tuition Breaks for Externships

January 3rd, 2013 / By

I’ve grown to like the idea of workplace externships. Properly supervised, students can learn quite a bit from an externship. Today’s employers undeniably want that type of proven experience in new hires. Working at an externship also puts a student “on the spot” when an employer wants to hire. Externships won’t create jobs, but they may make a school’s graduates more competitive for the ones that exist.

On the other hand, I’m a bit queasy about charging students tuition while they work somewhere else for free. That seems like a negative wage, rather than a minimum one. When an externship constitutes just part of a student’s course load, and the school charges a flat fee for full-time students, the concern is small. It costs the school something to supervise the externship, the student’s marginal cost may be zero, and we don’t differentiate other credits based on the number of students in the class, the professor’s salary, or other cost factors.

But what about externships that consume an entire semester? Or ones that occur during the summer? For these externships, students pay high fees for the privilege of providing free workplace services. Here, as Northwestern’s Dean Dan Rodriguez suggests on PrawfsBlawg, tuition reductions might be appropriate.

Sure, the school will lose revenue from those students but the market is going to force us to reduce the cost of law school attendance in one way or another. We already subsidize lots of law school credits through scholarships. Reduced-cost externships are just another targeted means of reducing tuition–and it’s a mechanism that might prove quite attractive to students.

Suppose, for example, that a school told every student: “We provide one no-cost summer externship to any student who wants one. We’ll help you find a suitable placement, provide appropriate classroom instruction, and award up to 5 hours of credit–all with no tuition charge to you. You can take advantage of this externship opportunity after either your first or second year; joint degree candidates may use the opportunity during any semester of their degree program.”

To me, that seems like an attractive way to discount tuition. It tells prospective students that a school recognizes the importance of workplace experience and will help every student obtain that opportunity. A strong externship program can also complement a school’s career services office: the ties with externship organizations can yield regular placement opportunities. And alumni are likely workplace supervisors, solidifying their ties with the school.

How much would this cost a school? You would have to include (a) the costs of externship supervisors, including the time they would spend identifying good externship oppportunities; (b) any charges the central university would impose on these subsidized credits; and (c) forgone tuition from students who would use summer credits to graduate a semester early. In past years, relatively few students have used summer credits to graduate early, but that number may increase in coming years.

For full-semester externships the calculus is similar–except that the risk of forgone tuition is closer to certainty. Few students enjoy law school so much that they will stay for a seventh semester. Still, as pressures mount to reduce the cost and length of law school, a no- or reduced-cost externship semester could draw students to a particular law school.

What other costs and benefits do you see? Are there other ways to structure externships to serve students and keep down educational costs?

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