The Need for More ‘Experiential Education’ in Law School
Did law school prepare you to be a lawyer? It’s a serious question.
As I have been traveling all over Florida, speaking to various legal and non-legal groups about the work being done by The Florida Bar to help our legal profession, the court system, and the public we serve, one of my regular talking points is the mentoring program that we are creating and will be rolling out in just a few months.
Wherever I have traveled, I have received strong support of and interest in this mentoring program for newer lawyers with three or less years of experience at firms of three or fewer lawyers. I know this program will have a positive impact on newer lawyers in terms of greater professionalism and legal ability, along with personal and professional growth.
But during my travels, many people have commented to me that they wish that law school did a better job of preparing its graduates for actually practicing law in the real world. Of course, the reality is much more complicated and nuanced. There are law schools that offer and recommend internships and similar opportunities, and a much smaller number of law schools that require a certain level of “experiential education” as a requirement of graduating law school.
Over the years, there have been “thought leaders” who have recommended getting rid of one of the semesters of the third year of law school to allow for the opportunity for law students to have an internship, clerkship, or law clinic experience. I’m not sure if that’s necessary or if law schools would voluntarily give up on a semester of tuition. As the American Bar Association presently has the role of accrediting law schools, there would be many hurdles in taking that approach. I think a more realistic and helpful approach would be to implement more of what law schools have started doing: requiring a certain number of credit hours of experiential education. This could take the form of an internship, law clinic, and even simulated work experiences in a law school setting. The Washington and Lee University School of Law was a pioneer in this movement, and over the years they have adjusted their program to spread this requirement out over multiple semesters, making it less burdensome for law students and creating more opportunities.
To be clear, this sort of thing is way above my pay grade as Florida Bar president, but as we create this new mentorship program, it is apparent how many people graduate law school without any internship or other “real-life” law experience. This makes the learning curve for these newer lawyers much steeper. Almost every other trade or profession requires an internship or apprenticeship. Obviously, medical school has a very rigorous approach, including clinics and shadowing medical professionals, followed by years of residency, internship, and possibly a fellowship. The legal profession should have similar opportunities so law school graduates can be better prepared for the practice of law and have a higher likelihood of long-term success.
There is another pragmatic benefit to requiring experiential education to graduate law school, and this has to do with greater access to legal services. The data is very clear about the large number of people choosing to go without an attorney for important life legal moments. Certainly, an ongoing public education program is going to be needed. But the reality is also clear that there are simply not enough lawyers practicing the “everyday practice of law” to provide these services. One of the recommendations of the Bar’s Special Committee on Greater Access to Legal Services was the expanded use of prepaid legal service plans. If more lawyers and firms take advantage of this approach, this could increase the opportunities for new lawyers to start working in these environments, both during and after law school.
Like most longstanding issues, the discussion of more experiential education for law students is not new, but given other pressures facing the legal profession right now, this is the time to implement these changes in law schools all over the country. This will greatly benefit the law school graduates, the clients they serve, and the profession as a whole.
We have the opportunity to be a leader on these issues here in Florida and learn from the law schools in other states that are already taking this approach. As the third-largest state in the country, if we move forward in this direction, other states will surely follow suit. And this will be a significant benefit to the lawyers getting more real-life experience, and the members of the public having greater access to legal services for themselves and their families.
Every journey, whatever the length or complexity, always starts with that first step. We can make that happen right here in Florida.