As legal employers increasingly fault law schools for failing to prepare their students for the actual practice of law, law schools have responded with an increasing array of student requirements that appear relevant without actually requiring the law school to provide any of that pesky practical experience that most professors don’t actually have. For example, when law firms complain that students exiting law school don’t have a proper grounding in how to draft legal documents like motions, briefs, or memos, the law school may respond by adding an “analytic paper” requirement in which a student must write a short academic treatise on a legal topic.
This, of course, does not in any way resemble an actual lawyer’s work product, but it does have the benefit of having enough similarity to a law review article that the school’s faculty, who are likely to have at least a collective five years’ experience in actual legal practice (if you count the non-tenure-track professors anyway), are able to grade the students’ papers easily enough. In essence, such papers look enough like relevant work to fool employers for a few years without actually requiring the law school to go to the trouble of finding and hiring the sort of plebeians who have actually sullied their hands with the actual practice of law. In the view of the law school’s professorial elite, a 30-page paper critiquing an obscure proposal for taxing carried interest (a proposal which, of course, fails to account for economic realities) incorporating Rawls’ theory of justice is of greater value than the ability to clearly and concisely analyze the tax implications of a decision made under current law. Because, naturally, clients will always prefer a rambling discussion of alternate theories of justice and equity to a succinct explanation of how to minimize their potential liability under the laws we actually have.
Of course, employers aren’t simply complaining about a lack of writing ability. No, the complaints deal with a lack of practical client experience as well. In answer to these complaints, law schools have responded with an increasing selection of legal clinics in which students may participate. These clinics are billed as a means for students to gain practical experience in actual legal situations, a good thing if you can get it. Unfortunately, the clinics are all too often synthetic means for the school to pad its own statistics. For example, many law schools now provide “Entrepreneurship” clinics which purport to provide “a valuable service to the community” by helping low-income entrepreneurs obtain legal advice they would otherwise be unable to afford.
Sadly, the actual result is generally that both the clients and the students are short-changed. Because grants for offering low-income assistance are far easier to come by, entrepreneurship clinic directors are faced with the perverse incentive to focus on clients who are so poor that they often cannot realistically be expected to have the ability to pay for the costs associated with incorporating, even with the clinic’s free legal advice. Similarly, the low-income focus and the altruistic desire to avoid turning anyone away from the clinic leaves students in the tricky position of attempting to provide legal advice to clients who don’t even have an outline of a business plan, let alone enough of a road map to facilitate meaningful legal analysis. Moreover, lawyers who have built successful practices as advisers to small businesses will tell you that one of the most important skills a business advising lawyer can have is the ability to know which potential clients need to be told to get the hell out of your office and to stop wasting your time. This, of course, is not an option in most clinic situations as the schools are often deathly afraid of harming their “reputation in the community,” no matter how much of a disservice this fear ends up doing to their paying students.
Ultimately, if you want useful experience from your law school career, look to something other than the law school to provide it. Unless you want experience representing clients in front of the IRS. For some reason the tax law clinics are generally exceptional . . .
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