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Are Firms Hot for Grads with Practical Skills?

Vivia Chen

June 26, 2013

Workmen © Kurhan - Fotolia.com(1)Remember all those laments about the sorry state of legal education? You know the argument: Law schools are antiquated and fail miserably at teaching students even basic lawyering skills. The result, say critics, is an inefficient supply chain, resulting in expensive on-the-job training, high legal fees, and disgruntled clients.

Ah, if only law schools produced practice-ready lawyers, firms would be swooping down to hire their students, and everyone would benefit, right?


For the past few years, Washington & Lee has been giving the market exactly what it says it wants—well-trained grads. (Its innovative third-year program was praised by Bill Henderson as the "biggest legal education story of 2013, and the National Jurist named the school’s faculty one of the "25 most influential people in legal education," says the TaxProf blog.)

And guess what it got back in return? Nada. Except crummy job results. Here's what Deborah Jones Merritt, a law professor at Ohio States, writes in TaxProf:

Washington & Lee’s recent employment outcomes are worse than those of similarly ranked schools. The results are troubling for advocates of experiential learning. They should also force employers to reflect on their own behavior: Does the rhetoric of “practice ready” graduates align with the reality of legal hiring? . . .

Washington & Lee’s employment outcomes for 2011 were noticeably mediocre. By nine months after graduation, only 55 percent of the school’s graduates had obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required bar admission. . . .

In 2012, the numbers were even worse. Only 49.2 percent of Washington & Lee’s 2012 graduates obtained full-time, long-term jobs that required a law license. . . .

So why did W&L (which ranks 26 in U.S. News & World Report) fare so badly in the job sweepstakes? TaxProf offers several theories, but they all boil down to this: "The connection between practical training and jobs is much smaller than practitioners and bar associations assert."

In other words, all that talk about how law schools need to train lawyers better is just a lot of hot air. Firms don't really expect recruits to have learned anything useful in law school—nor do they really care.

None of this surprises me. In the world of Big Law, most firms are too arrogant and too steeped in tradition to give a hoot about whether their recruits are equipped with practical skills. They would rather hire someone who got high grades and spent untold hours laboring on some esoteric law review note over a candidate with superb practical skills any day.

Maybe personal injury firms or small firms in small towns are interested in grads who can draft a simple contract or write a complaint. But that's not what big firms are after. I've said this countless times, and I'll say it again: Law in the big leagues is a vain, pedigree-obsessed profession.

Which means it's a badge of honor to be highly inefficient and impractical. But we all know that, right?

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I think that practical skills are worthwhile for the student and will help them succeed once they're hired. Getting Big Law to change will be challenging. I worked for two AMLAW 100 firms prior to going in-house. The partners at my first firm were far more interested in whether someone could play golf and had a clear understanding of current events than they were about their "practical skills". They assumed the folks could do the job if they had good enough grades. After that, it was merely a question of "likeability".

W&L is doing well with large firms and federal clerkships. Certainly better than Professor Merritt's school (Ohio State). So the pedigree for prestigious placement is there. e,g.


Keep in mind that W&L offers its experiential training in the 3L year, well after hiring decisions are made. It will take longer than a year or two to convince the law firm buyer--not just the elite-- that anything at all has changed. However, with the aid of the data-gatherers we may see this happen sooner than we think-- how about interviewing Bill Henderson next on this point?

I think the 2 year/three years w/ practical skills law school trend has legs. I do agree with you --and Andrea-- that the results will garner little immediate praise from the elite firms. You won't be surprised to know that I am most struck by the parallel with law school and law firm resistance to teaching finance and business strategy to students (in the core--not just via random electives) and young lawyers (intensively and experientially, e.g. with the Fullbridge Program, rather than in poorly attended/thinly taught in-house seminars or narrow-range out-sourced classroom formatted programs). LItigators are notorious for rejecting finance training as unnecessary--as if writing briefs and researching the law were enough to understand any business dispute and serve the client effectively. They should know better.
Needless to say, the trend away from three year schools and towards deeper practical training will be late to hit the NewHavenized- institutions---as Professor Estreicher makes clear in a phrase I have been over-using, with due attribution of course, since your terrific interview of your "scary smart" (and "just scary") old professor.

The premise is that the top law schools teach you to think and how to write-- these are the skills that are most highly valued in large law firm litigation practices where the high billing rate economics mean that matters are settled through motion practice and on paper filings rather than at trial. The stereotype is that the law schools below the top tier teach black letter law necessary to pass the local bar exam but not necessarily to write and examine law analytically. Until there is something which successfully upends those stereotypes, I don't see there being a lessened demand at the large firms for attorneys with law review or degrees from the top ranked schools-- irregardless of whether or not they have practical skills training.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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