Job Searches, Law Schools

Externship Fight Takes Center Stage at Georgetown University Law Center

If you followed my reports from the Future of Legal Education conference, you’ll note that “experiential learning” was a big buzzword among those contemplating how to make their students more desirable to potential employers. Many law school deans and faculty touted their school’s experiential course offerings, ranging from traditional clinical courses to for-credit externships.

Many law students — especially ones staring at the terrible market for recent graduates — feel that these programs will help them get jobs. Why wouldn’t they? Traditional legal education doesn’t seem to be helping them, yet their law schools keep jacking up tuition.

This month, students at Georgetown University Law Center decided that GULC’s for-credit externship opportunities were not on par with the offerings at other peer institutions. The GULC Student Bar Association put together a proposal for the faculty that called for more resources to be put into the school’s experiential courses. The SBA also wanted more school credit given for externships. The proposal seems to be in keeping with what employers claim they want from law school graduates: better practical training, better understanding of client services, better legal problem solving. Isn’t that the wave of the future?

No, according to a very vocal minority of Georgetown faculty. The proposal touched off a serious debate on campus. And some professors have gotten into the fracas with heavy-hitting arguments against the proposal…

The faculty will vote on the SBA proposal today. You can read the full proposal on the Georgetown SBA website.

Faculty opposition has been in the minority, but it has been fierce. Here are some excepts from Professor Gary Peller’s message to all students and faculty:

I have been contacted by you and many of your classmates who expressed confusion that the most progressive wing of the faculty (in my opinion!) oppose (along with many other faculty members) the proposal to continue and expand the granting of credit for externships (currently scheduled to be considered at a faculty meeting on Wednesday, April 21). You are entitled to know why we would oppose something that many students feel so strongly is in their interests.

I think this would be a great opportunity for a meaningful community-wide exchange about this important issue, which implicates the values and identity of the Law School as an institution. But the faculty was just presented with this proposal on Thursday afternoon. We have barely had time to analyze it and to research peer practices (there was a lot of unfortunate [sic], and so there has not been time for me at least to meet with you, to respond to all the communications I’ve gotten on this, etc., and for us to share our political analyses of what progressive students and faculty should do here. I’ve requested that the formal SBA leadership pushing this so hard agree with us to postpone the attempt to rush this through with six days notice, so that we can have a proper dialogue on the faculty and with and among students on this issue, which I think implicates our values as lawyers, as politically committed people, and as people with integrity, but I’ve been told that is not procedurally possible for the group. That is unfortunate, because that’s what I think needs to happen.

Is granting credit for externships a political issue? I thought it was an “employers tell me what you are teaching me is worthless and I can’t get the freaking job I was promised when I mortgaged my future to come here” issue.

But it doesn’t seem that Peller is totally against experiential learning. He’s just not a fan of the specific proposal in front of him. If anything, Peller is most worried that GULC students doing free legal work out of desperation will not receive any real future job benefits:

Finally, I want to say directly that I think the students pushing for hasty adoption of this flawed proposal are mistaking the true interests of students. It will not help GULC graduates in the long run if the high quality of the education here is compromised. It cheapens the value of the degree to award credit solely on the basis of job enhancement goals, or for activities that do not satisfy even the minimal accreditation standards imposed by the profession, or for the faculty to bestow academic credit with winking fraudulent pretension that the credits really reflect pedagogically meaningful work when no measures are in place to determine that. It would not have helped the value of the GULC diploma if we had an extern doing the corporate shell work for Acorn, or I imagine much work at the American Nazi Party, a non-profit, should not merit credit, nor, finally, work under dishonest or unethical lawyers who subordinate integrity to litigation victory (and the problem is that is way too prevalent). Again, I know most externship are probably great, but there is nothing on our program to ensure that whatsoever.

(I also think that even the job enhancement is overstated on this basis—the person in an office working for free to whom the supervisor owes no obligation is the person who likely will receive the least investment and attention the office; externships done properly, with classroom components, real quality standards imposed on the kind of work you do at the externship, and with duties for supervisors there to provide learning and not just extract free work, are just much more likely to be taken seriously by people with hiring power or influence. Having to provide free work to get job contacts is bad enough; students deserve at least to be paid in a meaningful educational experience and then credit awarded to recognize that…but we have to put in place a legitimate plan to accomplish that.)

So, my point is, don’t sell yourselves out so cheap, demand a really meaningful expanded externship program properly resourced and thought through, demand an opening up of clinical education to more progressive models serving the community and many more students, and don’t insist that the faculty commit the minor fraud of pretending there is pedagogical value when no steps have been taken to ensure it.

I think most reasonable people would agree with many of Peller’s objections. Georgetown should have controls in place to make sure that its students are not being taken advantage of when they work for free. It’s the school’s responsibility to ensure that the education they provide is tied to something that will actually help these kids succeed in a post-graduate, professional environment. It’s a very reasonable and pragmatic criticism, and I think Professor Peller makes a lot of sense.

But so long as we are talking about a “minor fraud” committed by the GULC faculty… WHY HASN’T GULC FIXED THIS ALREADY? Why is it on students to demand that GULC DOES ITS JOB NOW?

It’s April, 2010. The recession has been ruining law students looking for jobs for well over a year now. Don’t act like this is the first time you heard about how desperate your own students are to find work. GULC is acting like the person who moralizes to prostitutes about having self-respect, but doesn’t leave a tip for the diner waitress who’s trying to support her family.

Maybe professors like Peller believe the 93.5% employed upon graduation statistic GULC reported to U.S. News. But 2Ls and 3Ls don’t have the luxury of getting a hard-on from all the smoke being blown up their asses. These kids need work, these kids need work now — and from their perspective, law school has done nothing other than sit around and charge them money while their futures have been sacrificed on the altar of the “changing law firm business model.”

Are students afraid? You bet they are. Fear is rational when you are staring into an abyss of debt and despair. Is the student proposal flawed? Fine, come up with something better. It’s been 20 months since Lehman collapsed and everybody officially knew the American economy was going to go into the toilet. You’ve had time. Come up with something better, now! Tell these kids what they are supposed to do. They’ll listen, I promise. Tell them what they need to do to get a freaking job so they can pay back all the money they owe you and they will go out and do it.

It’s insulting to tell these kids to go a little bit more slowly while offering no new alternatives. Professors can sit back, ride out the recession, and wait until the new market (whatever that is going to be) has settled into place. But soon-to-be graduates don’t have tenure, they have bills.

At some point these schools need to accept an obvious fact: if graduates can’t get jobs, then the faculty has failed them. So maybe faculty should spend a little less time criticizing student proposals, and a little more time apologizing for failure and coming up with creative solutions to the problems their students are facing.

Regardless of how the vote turns out, let’s hope that the faculty immediately turn their attention to the real issue on campus.

Earlier: Obsession With Tenure And Money Likely to Ruin the Future of Legal Education
Corporate General Counsel Puts Fear of God into Legal Educators

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