Anyone who’s gone to law school will tell you that the vast majority of graduates leave knowing next to nothing about the actual practice of law. Successful law grads may know how to “think like lawyers,” which is important, but when it comes down to the everyday, nuts-and-bolts aspects of practicing law, they’re clueless.
This has been known for decades – law firms that hire new graduates have resigned themselves to the fact that they have to train their new lawyers in virtually every aspect of practicing law. The larger firms have structured orientation and training programs for this purpose.
Apparently, the State Bar of California has taken notice of this fact, and is looking into taking steps to change the status quo. They have formed a task force to study the pros and cons of requiring law students or new law school graduates to complete some type of internship before they are allowed to take the bar exam and become licensed attorneys. The comments on the blog post I just linked to already show that the proposal is controversial, which is understandable.
The practice of law, and legal education, are steeped in tradition. Accordingly, they’re fairly resistant to change. Also, there’s some concern that such a requirement would lead to law schools turning down a large number of applicants based on the actual or perceived preferences of employers who would offer internships, perhaps leading to discrimination based on race, gender, or, as one commentator put it, “the number of piercings” an applicant has.
However, it’s hard to argue against the proposition that the current legal education model is antiquated and inefficient. And with competition for legal jobs being incredibly fierce in today’s economy, one could argue that the current model does a disservice to new law graduates. The fact is, many of them will not find employment as lawyers, whether it’s with a law firm, in-house at a corporation, or with the government. Many consider starting their own law practices as a backup option. But, if a new lawyer doesn’t know the first thing about the practice of law, starting a solo practice is a huge risk.
And the risk is not just financial (though that’s certainly a big part of it). If a young lawyer makes a few too many rookie mistakes, their reputation in the legal community can be ruined before their career even gets off the ground. This also puts clients (i.e., the general public) at risk. Having incompetent legal representation can be ruinous for the unfortunate client – possibly costing them huge amounts of money, or even their freedom.
On balance, I think that this is a good idea in principle, even if implementing it would raise some practical issues. But once these issues are worked out, such a system would produce a more efficient and competent legal profession, and probably improve overall job satisfaction of lawyers (which most surveys suggest is extremely low, on average).
The legal profession would be more competent, for obvious reasons – law school would actually teach its graduates some of the basic skills necessary to practice law. The profession would become more efficient because employers won’t have to spend nearly as much time training new hires – allowing new attorneys to immediately get to work on client matters. This, in turn, means that law firms won’t have to spend as much money training their new associates, and some of those savings will be passed on to clients.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the internship requirement, especially if it has to be completed early in one’s legal education (the summer after the first year of law school, for instance), will give prospective lawyers a first-hand view of what the legal profession is actually like, so they can determine if it’s a career they actually want to pursue before investing too much time and money in it.
This would probably increase first-year attrition rates at most law schools, but I think it would be worth it. If new lawyers know exactly what they’re getting into, and have an early opportunity to get out if it’s not for them, those who stick it out will do so presumably because they enjoy the work. This should increase the overall rate of job satisfaction among attorneys, which would also improve their quality of life and the quality of their work product.
It would probably also lead to fewer people graduating law school each year. With the competition for legal jobs being incredibly fierce, with the supply of new lawyers vastly outstripping demand, a “residency” could prove very beneficial. Reducing the number of new lawyers who enter the marketplace each year, while simultaneously improving their competence, should eventually balance out the legal marketplace, making it less stressful on its participants, and improving the level of service to clients.
And finally, all of these benefits taken together would help improve the legal profession’s standing with the general public. After all, if legal services are more affordable, new lawyers are more competent, and clients do not have the impression that they’re paying for the training of new attorneys, they’re likely to be far more satisfied with the legal services they receive. Also, the current law school model, which is highly academic and theoretical, leads to some law school graduates entering the world with an inflated sense of their own intelligence and wisdom (to be fair, this happens with lots of college graduates, too). Treating legal education more like trade school – and law school does teach a trade, after all – would probably produce graduates who are more grounded in reality, making lawyers more likeable.
And most lawyers know that the profession could always use a bit of help in that department.