Education / Schools, Job Searches, Law Schools

The Myth Of The ‘Practice Ready’ Law Graduate

It has become a somewhat common refrain from legal education types that law schools should do more to produce “practice ready” graduates in response to the tight job market for lawyers.

You haven’t heard much of that BS coming from me though. I’ve pretty consistently said “the tuition is too damn high.” I think the pedagogical infighting over “theory” courses versus “practical” courses is irrelevant when people are graduating from lower-ranked law schools with $100,000 (or more) in student loan debt. I view the “practice ready” debate as just another attempt by law school deans to justify their high salaries and the salaries of their faculty, salaries that are unsustainable for any school that wants to get serious about cutting costs.

Finally, there’s a law professor who agrees with me. Or at the very least equally disagrees with the notion of “practice readiness” as a panacea to the problems with legal education. University of Maryland law professor Robert Condlin calls the practice-ready concept a “millennialist fantasy.”

Again, I don’t think it’s a millennailist problem so much as it’s the last desperate ravings of old people determined to continue fleecing millennails, but we can figure out whom to blame later…

The WSJ Law Blog and Tax Prof Blog have good summaries of Condlin’s findings. Here are some pertinent paragraphs from his paper:

No one would dispute that the United States legal system has a labor market problem, but law schools cannot revive the labor market, or improve the employment prospects of their graduates, by providing a different type of instruction. Placing students in jobs is a function of a school’s academic reputation, not its curriculum, and the legal labor market will rebound only after the market as a whole has rebounded (and perhaps not then). The cause of the present troubles is a lack of jobs, not a lack of graduates (of any kind), and producing more “practice ready” graduates will have no effect on the supply of jobs. The proposal is a spectacular non sequitur to the present troubles.

The concept of “practice ready” also is unintelligible and would be impossible to implement if it were not. There are as many different types of practice, for example, as there are levels of readiness for it and proponents of the proposal do not say which of these various possibilities (and combinations of possibilities), they have in mind. If the expression had a clear meaning, law schools still could not implement it because proficiency at practice depends upon dispositions (i.e., habits informed by reflection), and dispositions take longer than a law school course to develop. Like a lot of blog commentary, the “practice ready” proposal is more slogan than idea. Perhaps that is why it is so popular.

Those two points are really important for law students and prospective law students to understand. Seton Hall could produce the most “practice ready” graduates in the country, and those students still aren’t going to do as well as Columbia law students in the New York job market. I know that seems horribly unfair to Seton Hall students. I know Seton Hall administrators will tell prospective students that this is not the case. But Condlin is right: “Placing students in jobs is a function of a school’s academic reputation, not its curriculum….”

There are many reasons for that, and most of them are bad or at least “disgusting, elitist” reasons. But one of the reasons that is a little bit fair is that Condlin’s second takeaway is also true: “The concept of ‘practice ready’ also is unintelligible and would be impossible to implement if it were not.” Becoming “practice ready” takes, well, practice. And you can’t really get that practice while pretending to practice in a clinic or course.

And firms know this. Sure, hiring partners might talk a good game at legal education conferences when a law school asks what they can do to get more students hired by their firm. But that’s because saying “produce practice-ready graduates” sounds a lot better than “nothing… we’re going to hire people from the most prestigious schools we can, and maybe bring in your valedictorian for an interview if we’re feeling generous.” It might be wrong for a firm to hire the middle-of-the-class guy at a top school over the moot court champion at a low-prestige school. They might be making a bad business decision — there’s even statistical evidence that the attrition rate from firms is much higher for people who went to top-ranked schools than those who went to less highly ranked ones. But, rightly or wrongly, employers assume that people at the elite schools can be made “practice ready” with on-the-job training at the firm. Remember this famous quote from Justice Antonin Scalia on how he hires law clerks:

I’m going to be picking from the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest, and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, O.K.?

There’s no practice-ready curriculum on the planet that is going to change that perception. If anything, the clients’ unwillingness to pay for on-the-job training of new associates probably makes the preference even more in favor of graduates from prestigious law schools. Telling your clients that you have a gang of Ivy League graduates working on their matter is a little easier than saying the most “practice ready” associates from Flyover U are on the case.

… Which isn’t at all to suggest that there’s nothing law schools should do beyond the traditional theory-based curriculum. I don’t think law schools can do a lot to make students more “practice ready” upon graduation, but they could be doing a lot more to make their students “business ready” when they leave the safety of law school and emerge into a challenging job market. Students should graduate law schools with a basic understanding of business development and client service. They should know how to work a referral network. I’m kind of less worried about whether a recent graduate can write a good brief (they’ll figure that out as they go along) and more concerned with whether they know how to rent good office space so that one day somebody might walk in and ask them to write a brief.

You don’t necessarily need these business skills if you are going into Biglaw (I mean, you do if you want to make partner, but… you’re not really going to make partner, so stop fooling yourself). But if you are going to go into a very small practice, if you are going to be told to “hang out a shingle” and start your own practice, your success or failure will hinge more on your business skills than your legal skills. That probably sounds horribly unfair too. But Jose Baez makes money and won a huge case… and I bet 75 percent of the people reading this blog are “better” lawyers than he is. Being a good lawyer and being a lawyer who turns a profit are two different things.

Of course, if law schools taught business sense it wouldn’t be too long before people realized that their law school was charging them way too much for their law degrees.

The Practice-Ready Law Graduate is a ‘Fantasy,’ Says Professor [WSJ Law Blog]
Practice-Ready Law School Graduates: A Millennialist Fantasy [Tax Prof Blog]
‘Practice Ready Graduates': A Millennialist Fantasy [SSRN]

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