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Task force explores need
for practical skills training

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Task Force Members:

State Bar President Jon Streeter, chair

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 of Trustees

Loren Kieve, State Bar Board of Trustees

Karen M. Goodman, State Bar Board of Trustees

Wells B. Lyman, State Bar Board of Trustees

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, Pasadena

William C. Vickrey, former director of the Administrative Office of the Courts,

George O. Davis, Los Angeles media entrepreneur

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 California.

Jon Streeter
Streeter

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 early 1980s.

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 said.

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 academia.

“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 cautious approach.

“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 attorney.

“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.