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Task force finalizes practical skills proposal

By Psyche Pascual
Staff Writer

After more than a year of drafts, revisions and public hearings, a task force has sent to the State Bar’s Board of Trustees a far-reaching proposal geared towards improving the practical skills of new lawyers.

The 22-member State Bar Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform unanimously approved the draft proposal on June 11, but it still requires the Board of Trustees’ approval and possibly also the California Supreme Court before it is implemented. The board has asked that public comments be submitted on the proposal before Sept. 5.

If adopted by the full board, it would be the most sweeping set of new requirements for new lawyers recently adopted by the bar. It will also require the cooperation of not only the bar, but law schools, legal service organizations and possibly local bar associations for its implementation.

State Bar officials maintain that the proposal will better prepare law school graduates to compete in a dismal job market that has lost thousands of positions in recent years. Many also face mountains of debt after graduation.

“We want to better prepare lawyers to face the challenges and reach the potential that brought them into law school in the first place,” State Bar President Patrick M. Kelly said.

Jon Streeter, the task force chairman and former State Bar president, said as the largest bar in the nation, California is at the forefront of making changes to its admissions standards that may ripple across to other state bars.

“What we are doing is profoundly important because of the size of our bar and the statement we’ll be making about better preparation of lawyers as they enter the profession,” he said.

The proposal moves on to the Regulation, Admissions and Discipline Oversight Committee of the Board of Trustees. Under the proposal, new attorneys would have to complete several levels of training that would offer them real-life skills to work as a lawyer, such as negotiating, counseling and problem-solving with clients, budgeting and managing a practice. They include:

  • 15 units of competency skills training during law school or participation in an internship or clerkship
  • 50 hours of legal services devoted to pro bono or modest means clients, either before or after admission. Under the proposal, lawyers would have up to a year after admission to complete the requirement.
  • 10 extra hours of Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) after admission, specifically focused on competency skills training

Before finalizing the report, members of the task force agreed to make additional changes, but there are still many more details to iron out before the plan is implemented.

The panel, made up of attorneys,  judges, academics and State Bar officials, has heard dozens of hours of public comments over the past year, including from those critical of the plan. Some speakers at the June meeting questioned the bar’s ability to implement the pro bono requirement, pointing out that new lawyers would need supervision, monitoring and regular mentoring to make sure they learn the proper skills.

Anna Davis, director of public interest programs at the University of California at Irvine School of Law, said that 90 percent of UCI law students already do pro bono work. However, there are few legal service agencies near the university that would have the resources to supervise students’ pro bono work.

Doing work for a for-profit legal firm may not solve the problem, Davis said, since state and federal labor regulations would prevent law students from performing unpaid labor if their employer is paid for its work.

Many law schools, Davis added, do not allow so-called “double-dipping,” which is when students get academic credit while getting paid as interns and clerks.

In a June 10 letter to the task force, Katherine Kruse, president of the St. Paul, Minn.-based Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), a group that represents law school academics, insisted that the 15-unit requirement for law students did not go far enough in promoting practical skills. She urged the task force to increase it to 21 units.

In an amendment to the proposal, the task force authorized a change that would give law schools the ability to credit portions of courses that first year students take towards the required 15 units of competency skills, provided that the courses offer some sort of advanced skills training.

The proposal is still open to revision. If the full Board of Trustees adopts the proposal, it would still have to go through a smaller committee of the task force to work out many of the details and who would be responsible for regulating it. Still, task force chairman Streeter said he is proud of the group’s work.

“So many people have come in with critical comments, but also support for what we’re doing,” Streeter said. “While one can quibble about some of the details, I’m more convinced than ever about what we’re doing.”