Task force explores need
practical skills training
By Amy Yarbrough
Task Force Members:
State Bar President Jon
Deanell R. Tacha, dean of Pepperdine
University School of Law
Marjorie M. Shultz, professor
emeritus at UC Berkeley School of Law
Shauna Marshall, assistant dean
at UC Hastings College of the Law
Heather L. Rosing, State Bar
Board of Trustees
Dennis Mangers, State Bar Board
Loren Kieve, State Bar Board of
Karen M. Goodman, State Bar
Board of Trustees
Wells B. Lyman, State Bar Board
Richard A. Frankel, State Bar
Committee of Bar Examiners
Patti P. White, State Bar
Committee of Bar Examiners
Alan Yochelson, former member
of State Bar Committee of Bar Examiners
Hon. Steven A. Brick, Alameda
County Superior Court
Hon. Audrey B. Collins, chief
judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California
Robert Shives, associate
general counsel at Fujitsu America
Steven Nissen, vice president
of legal and legislative affairs at NBC Universal
James McManis of McManis
Faulkner, San Jose
Matthew K. Edling of Cotchett,
Pitre & McCarthy, Burlingame
Jill A. Switzer, attorney,
William C. Vickrey, former
director of the Administrative Office of the Courts,
George O. Davis, Los Angeles
Concerned that law school students aren't learning the nuts
and bolts of lawyering, the State Bar has assembled a group to study whether
practical skills training should become a condition of practicing law in
The new Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform will
consider whether to adopt a practical skills training requirement for being
admitted to practice law and, if so, how long that training should be and what
it would entail. The task force plans to hold the first of three hearings on
the issue June 11 and release its recommendations before the end of 2013. Any
change would require California Supreme Court approval.
State Bar President Jon Streeter, who chairs the 21-member
group, said the idea grew out of discussions at a Board of Trustees retreat in
January that dealt with the State Bar's overall goal of protecting the public
and the fact that abysmal job prospects, coupled with huge debt, have been
forcing many law school graduates to strike out on their own.
Streeter noted that many fundamental skills such as drafting
client engagement letters aren't taught in lecture halls, but rather learned on the
job by observing other lawyers.
“Law schools do a great job and, for the most part, have
always done a great job of teaching law as doctrine,” Streeter said. “But that
is very different than the subtle and very specific skill set one needs to
interact with clients on a day-to-day basis.”
Some law school administrators, however, are skeptical about
the State Bar's plans.
Proposal gets chilly reception from some in academia
Larry Kramer, dean of Stanford Law School, said he agrees
that law school students need to learn practical skills, but called the State
Bar's actions “premature” considering the number of practical skills courses
already being offered or developed.
“It will become political,” he said of the discussions
around a new training requirement. “If things were really bad and there was no
movement, it might be a different thing.”
According to a survey by the American Bar Association,
aspiring lawyers in three states must take legal ethics or substance abuse
courses during law school if they want to be admitted to practice law.
Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia require practical skills
courses and training after law school, the makeup of which varies from state to
state. Delaware, for example, requires its new lawyers to complete a five-month
clerkship and “pre-admission session” conducted by its Supreme Court and Board
of Bar Examiners.
California's State Bar, for its part, has explored the idea
of pre-admission practical skills training in the past, dating back to the
Kramer said Stanford has been refining its practical skills education
for years and now has a clinical program taken by 75 percent of its students.
He said he worries about those efforts being interrupted.
“Anytime they step in, this stifles innovation,” Kramer
State Bar’s priority is public protection
Streeter said those kinds of comments “reflect a lack of
understanding” and that the task force has no intention of dictating the content
of law school curriculum. Part of its role will be, however, to look what
academia is doing and what practical skills training exists in other states.
“I hope that by engaging in these discussions we are going
to be providing an incentive for law school to place a great emphasis on
clinical education,” he added.
Streeter acknowledged that law schools may need to adapt
their curriculum to respond to the market should a practical skills mandate be
adopted. He said schools may be concerned about how it will affect their
standing in U.S. News & World Report's annual law school rankings, which
don't put a lot of emphasis on clinical education.
“That is a tough problem for law schools, but it is not our
problem,” he said. “Ours is to look after the best interests of the public.”
Cost-benefit analysis will be key
Comprised of State Bar officials, lawyers and members of the
public, the task force plans to consider whether practical skills training
would further the State Bar's goal of protecting the public and whether to
require uniform curriculum or permit a variety. The group will also weigh the
potential benefits versus the costs of a training requirement, and if it makes
sense to first test out the program with a pilot phase.
UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Christopher Edley Jr., whose
colleague Marjorie Shultz is one of three academics on the task force, said the
practical skills issue has been debated for at least the 30 years he's been in
“It's not a new concern but it's arguably gotten worse
because of changes in the law firm market with pressure on the way associates
bill,” he said.
Edley applauded the State Bar's efforts but encouraged a
“The premise is solid. Part of the bar's responsibility is
to worry about the basic competence of new lawyers. With the decline in these
programs it seems plausible to think that the public is at more risk,” Edley
said. “The problem is, it's very difficult to do in a sensible way.”
Among other concerns, Edley said, is that clinical training
might focus some unaccredited schools' attention away from maintaining their
bar passage rates. It might also be difficult to draft requirements, given the
varied types of law people go into, he said. Someone looking to do
transactional work needs different skills than an aspiring criminal defense
“I think that the same sorts of skills are not needed for
every kind of practice so you have to be selective in a way that is sensible,
given the variety of first jobs people take,” he said, noting that some skills,
like research, are more universal.
“It may be that something very modest will provide some
benefits,” Edley said.
Streeter said the task force could ultimately figure out a
way to group certain skills sets together or simply conclude it's too ambitious
to try to dictate the content of the training.
At the end of the day, Streeter said, he is just one member
of the task force which is only just beginning its work.
“We don't go into it with any preconceived notions or
ordained results,” he said.