Practical Skills v Academia
At times, it appears law school curriculum is overly steeped in academia. Some students even feel it neglects to impart on graduates an accurate understanding of the actual practice of law. The day to day life of a law student bares little resemblance to that of a practicing lawyer.
Practicing lawyers spend large quantities of time interacting with clients and principals, giving legal advice, drafting legal documents, and partaking in negotiations. As students, we worry about examinations while wrestling with semantics and the finer points of legal theory. It is not unreasonable to ask how much value such exercises carry with regards to the practical realities of practicing.
It is common to hear of law firms who hire fresh JD graduates complaining about their lack of preparedness for the work expected of them. Calls for law school reform would see more emphasis placed on procedural skill and less on legal theory. It must be asked, however, how much a transition in law school curriculum into being more practice oriented would remedy the problem, and whether such a change is even desirable.
While it is obvious that lawyering consists of more than legal theory and doctrinal study, being a lawyer is much more than filing cases and being well-versed in legal procedure. Law school is an intellectual endeavour, not simply a training regime where students will be churned out into the work force. There are two principal concerns with such a shift towards a more practical education.
The first is that a practical training program is unlikely to actually provide a seamless transition from school into the workforce. To become proficient at anything one requires extensive real-world experience before developing a command of it. While teaching client interactions skills and building a strong sense of professional conduct are no doubt desirable, it is debatable how effective of an environment a classroom is to learn these skills.
Reforming law school into a training regime focused on practical skills runs the risk of simply recycling stale conventional wisdom and discouraging creative thinking. Furthermore, it is not as though law students today are shut out of developing these skills. Volunteering for legal clinics, involvement in school clubs, and working summer jobs for law firms are all great examples of the ways in which students can help prepare themselves for the workforce in addition to their studies.
Secondly, perhaps the most valuable skill developed in law school is the ability to think critically about and to analyze the legal structures on which society is based. The common law evolves because legal thinkers apply fresh ideas to old ways of solving problems. A strong sense of critical thinking coupled with an understanding of the ways in which current law doctrines are structured is essential to this process.
Law school is the time in a lawyer’s career where they immerse themselves in the law in an intensive intellectual capacity that they may never get the chance to do again. Becoming intimately familiar with legal theory and doctrines is a crucial aspect in the process of developing into an effective lawyer. Sacrificing time spent on this process in the interests of fast-tracking the development of practical skills is not necessarily going to produce more effective legal thinkers. This seems unnecessary especially when students have ample opportunity to acquire these skills in other settings outside of the law building.
The academic study of law is an important aspect of the lawyering trade. It helps prepare students for the intellectual challenges that they will encounter throughout their careers. It also helps impart a sense of openness with regards to fresh ideas and developments in legal theory.
Perhaps the lack of preparedness law firms find in students is not the fault of their educations, but rather a lack of experience that cannot be learned in a classroom.
Josef Gallant (1L) is a Staff Writer for Juris Diction.