I Look Forward to Reading This Paper

Robert Condlin, ‘Practice Ready Graduates’: A Millennialist Fantasy”. Abstract:

The sky is falling on legal education say the pundits, and preparing “practice ready” graduates is the best strategy for surviving the fallout. This is a millennialist version of the argument for clinical legal education that dominated discussion in the law schools in the 1960s and 1970s. The circumstances are different now, as are the people calling for reform, but the two movements are alike in one respect: both view skills instruction as legal education’s primary purpose. Everything else is a frolic and detour, and a fatal frolic and detour in hard times such as the present.

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.

Not pulling any punches here, are we? Lest you think Prof. Condlin (whom I don’t know) is an Ivory tower guy or anti-clinic, here’s his official bio:

From 1969 to 1972, Professor Condlin was an assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He represented the Commonwealth in several major lawsuits in state and federal court, including Massachusetts v. Laird, an original action in the United States Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Vietnam War, Sturgis v. Quinn, the state court precursor to the Supreme Court decision in Baird v. Bellotti, upholding a woman’s right to birth control, and Board of Appeals of Concord v. Housing Appeals Committee of the Department of Community Affairs, the first defense of an anti-snob zoning statute in the United States. He left the Attorney General’s office in 1972 to establish the Urban Legal Laboratory, a full-semester clinical program for students of Boston College Law School, run jointly with the Boston Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. In 1974 he became a teaching fellow at Harvard Law School, where he taught and did graduate study in the field of clinical law. He left Harvard in 1976 to become associate professor of law at the University of Virginia, where he created that school’s clinical law program. He moved to Maryland in 1980. He has served as a consultant to the AALS Law Teachers Clinic and Clinical Teachers Training Conferences and to the Canadian Law Teachers Clinic and has taught at Indiana University Law School at Bloomington as a visiting professor

OK, a little ivory tower, maybe. But the paper sounds like it might be a useful corrective to certain over-enthusiasms.

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3 Responses to I Look Forward to Reading This Paper

  1. One of the things lacking at law schools, but rarely discussed, is brutally honest aptitude evaluations and career counseling based upon the first year or two. Arguably, one could say the LSAT test informs there too. There are a lot of students who after 2L need to be sat down and told, “hey, if you think you’re going to be an appellate lawyer, well, you’re probably kidding yourself. Your writing stinks, your analysis is unfocused. If that’s your passion then go for it, but you’re going to struggle and you’ll have a tough time getting hired. But you are great at public speaking, and very charismatic. What about practice areas that emphasize short hearings, mediations, and consumer networking as a means to gain clients? Have you thought about X, Y, or Z practice areas?” Or “you a tax lawyer? Forget it! Your logic scores on the LSAT were horrible, you struggled in reg-based subjects, you can’t balance your own checkbook…yeah I know your Dad was/is a tax lawyer, but you will struggle and hate it. Instead, you’d probably be enjoy and be good at a practice area that….”

    In reality, students that get into Big Law sort of get that kind of counseling at the large firms, where they might be able to get a survey of radically different practice areas and settle into where they fit best, on the firm’s dime. They’ll get brutally honest reviews from partners, who will tell them, “hey, after three months I can see that my corporate bankruptcy practice is not for you…it just isn’t, trust me. I think you should talk to Jane in our white collar crime practice…something tells me you would be a good fit there….” And that can go on for a few years even! But the B and C students….they get those brutal lessons from the unadulterated and impatient small- and medium-sized firm marketplace, which can be a harsh mistress indeed. There, no such thing as transferring to a different practice area within the firm…only transferring to the unemployment line, probably without a good reference…

    You probably have kept tabs on some of your former classmates. There’s always an outlier who you say, “wow, I can’t believe *she* practices XYZ law…” but I’d bet that in most cases, you see where the person is, you think back to what they were like in law school, and you say, “yep, that outcome was predictable.”

    So I’m not saying you pigeon hole people or kill their passions, but these are, after all, adults who have already had 4 years of higher education, maybe some work experience already, and maybe even other advanced degrees. These aren’t evolving children, and worrying about hurting their feelings is not helpful. A real counselor who gets to know the student, looks at their grades, looks at their LSAT, meets with them several times, gets anonymous peer reviews (yes law students have a keen sense of who is good at what in their peer group), maybe even administers a personality test….

    Well I don’t know the exact methodology, but it seems to me something can be done to get 2Ls with mediocre grades squared away to leave the cocoon, because they will not have the luxury of trial and error that the Law Review types will be afforded. And it seems to me the Law Review types are not the ones making the most noise about the state of law schools….

    • I have milder versions of these conversations with students in my office routinely. Not so much “you’re no good at X” but “sounds like you might want to consider Y”. Now, admittedly, who makes their way to my office is an utterly non-random sample of the motivated, term-time job-seeking, and troubled students, but it’s not nothing.

  2. Barry says:

    “The sky is falling on legal education say the pundits, and preparing “practice ready” graduates is the best strategy for surviving the fallout. ”

    From my reading, the pundits at best sorta admit that there are problems.

    And the big problem will remain: 2x as many lawyers produced as jobs, law school costs increasing at a rate far, far above even the top quarter of salaries, and the total number of matriculating law students might still be increasing (more schools opening, and not that many reducing class sizes).

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