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ANALYSIS: Four Ways Law Schools Can Shut the Practical Skill Gap

Feb. 10, 2022, 10:00 AM

A new Bloomberg Law survey reveals a gap between what students are being taught in law school and what practical skills they will need for a successful career. Incorporating real-world practical courses in the traditional legal program can help bridge this gap.

Attorneys were asked about the skills they wished they had learned before practicing law in our Law School Preparedness Survey. Their responses—some chosen from the survey, some provided by the respondents themselves—ranged from client interaction to networking skills, as seen in the word cloud below. The majority identified multiple practical skills that would have been beneficial to learn before the start of their careers.

Law schools are in a unique position to train future attorneys on such skills. However, this conflicts with the longstanding model of legal education that prioritizes doctrinal subjects and legal research and writing. Unfortunately, in most law school programs, there has not been a primary focus on skills like judgment, client interaction, and professional communication.

Legal knowledge—although undoubtedly important—should not be the sole priority of one’s legal education. Law schools must determine how to better incorporate practice-oriented content and skill-based courses into their curricula.

As a starting point, here are four potential solutions that law schools (and regulators) should consider:

Teach practical skills as part of the doctrinal courses. Rather than focus solely on the subject matter, professors could embed these skills into their current courses and dedicate time during class to replicate real-world situations—such as holding mock plea bargains during first-year criminal law. Professors could provide immediate feedback and even consider changing grading methods to account for this (e.g., 75% final examination and 25% practical skills).

Provide more real-world experience and opportunities. While law schools have done a decent job of providing such opportunities for students, increasing the number of options available—or making real-world experience a degree requirement—can better prepare students for practice. Whether it’s offering a year-long apprenticeship similar to a medical residency, increasing the time students spend in clinics, or introducing more pro bono work opportunities, there is no better way to prepare students for practice than to send them right into it.

Increase the number of required experiential learning skills. Current ABA standards require only six hours of experiential learning credits per student, which may include a simulation course, law school clinic, or field placement. Unfortunately, these opportunities are often very selective and offer only a limited number of seats. If the ABA were to increase the requirement, law schools would be encouraged to incorporate more experiential learning courses into their curricula, and create additional opportunities for students to fulfill this requirement.

Introduce more skill-based courses and programs. Schools can incorporate more practice-oriented and skill-based courses and tools into the traditional legal curriculum. These courses should be geared toward teaching students important practical skills such as client interactions, conflict and project management, professional communications, and more. During my own law school experience, I had the opportunity to take “Legal Problem Solving” and “Legal Project Management,” which were invaluable additions to my legal studies. It would be helpful for law schools to consult with practicing attorneys during the development of these programs.

With these solutions in mind, it’s important to note that a number of law schools have already made significant strides toward innovation. I attended one such school and am grateful for the opportunity I was given to develop certain practical skills before graduation. These proved to be especially useful in my first job after law school, as project management and client interactions were a huge part of my day-to-day.

It will be interesting to see how practical skills courses continue to grow in law schools and what it will mean for the future of graduating law students and their preparedness to practice.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, Legal Operations, In Focus: Lawyer Development, and Practical Guidance: Legal Project Management pages.

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