A lot of ink is spilled over whether or not law schools are failing to produce “practice ready” lawyers. What does it mean to be practice ready? There really isn’t a great definition. I mean, do we want law students to walk out prepared to run their own firms? Argue before the Supreme Court? Draft a credit-default swap agreement from memory? Serve as a bankruptcy trustee? How much practical know-how should we demand our law schools instill?
That doesn’t really matter, “practice ready” looks great on a bumper sticker.
For my money, the phrase means lawyers prepared enough not to drool on their desks when a partner (or supervisor or judge) starts showing them the way they want their young lawyers to practice law. Because make no mistake, lawyers are always practice unready in the eyes of their employers until they do the job exactly the employers’ way. This is why clinics serve an important role in law schools. Not that 6 months of being a glorified paralegal builds a wealth of practical legal know-how, but because 6 months of trying to figure out how to deploy what you do happen to know to satisfy a demanding legal boss is the soul of being a junior lawyer.
To that end, there’s a new ranking of the top clinical programs in law schools with some surprising (or not, depending on your point of view) results….
Professor Paul Caron at TaxProf Blog spotted this new batch of rankings out of the National Jurist. If you have some misgivings about trusting rankings out of the National Jurist, note that these results were conjured using data from the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools (2013 Edition), as opposed to RateMyProfessors.com. Say what you will about the ABA and LSAC, but I think we can safely put more faith in their data than trusting a lone disgruntled student.
Without further ado, here’s what National Jurist found:
Yale is number 1, which shocks nobody; student interest in clinics at YLS runs high. What may shock some is the presence of the University of Utah, U.D.C., the University of Wisconsin, and North Carolina Central in the top 5, with a plethora of other traditionally overlooked schools also in the top 20.
But it shouldn’t be as much of a shock to ATL readers. Elie has shared his view that the “practice ready” movement and the clinics it spawns are the province of lower-tier law schools trying to justify their existence:
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.
And he’s probably right that having top-notch clinical experience at less prestigious law schools won’t improve a student’s job prospects over having no clinical experience at a T14 school. Sure, clinics often have Biglaw sponsors, and the clinical experience could offer an otherwise unavailable networking opportunity, but that’s marginal at best. But if you aren’t comparing Seton Hall with Columbia and start comparing Seton Hall to Rutgers-Camden, students who have access to actual, practical lawyering should have a leg up in convincing employers that they have the skills to transition to working as a lawyer-employee. It’s not what the deans of the lower-tier law schools who are driving the experimentation in clinical education would want you to hear, but the goal of these programs is still about being the best law school in their tier rather than getting a promotion.
So take these rankings with the appropriate grain of salt. Don’t turn down your ticket to Stanford for North Carolina Central because you have a passion for their Financial Transactions Clinic. But keep the pressure on all law schools to offer more varied and innovative practical experiences if for no other purpose than getting students prepared for dealing with their future bosses.