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Proposal requires hands-on training for law students, new attorneys

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

A State Bar group tasked with exploring ways to help new attorneys get better equipped to practice law recently unveiled its draft recommendations, including practical skills training and a pro bono commitment.

The Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform is tentatively recommending that law school students complete 250 semester hours of training between their second and third years of law school, as well as 50 hours of pro bono or low bono legal service either in law school or during their first year of practice. The training would focus on practical skills and working with clients. New lawyers would also need to complete 10 additional hours of Minimum Continuing Legal Education focused on practical skills training. Those hours would be in addition to any MCLE required of active members. The task force discussed its draft proposal at its Feb. 12 meeting. The proposal is the first step in a process that must ultimately be approved by the State Bar’s Board of Trustees and the California Supreme Court.

Former State Bar President Jon Streeter, who chairs the task force, stressed that the recommendations are “not set in stone in any respect” and that there will be plenty of opportunity for public comment. But he noted that there have long been concerns about whether new lawyers are fully prepared when they enter the profession. 

“As regulators, the State Bar has an obligation to ensure that young lawyers are equipped to enter into the profession with a strong foundation,” Streeter said.

Inspired in part by a New York proposal that new lawyers complete 50 hours of pro bono pre-admission, the task force’s efforts have been met with resistance by some law school deans who fear that the requirements may interfere with their own ongoing efforts to adopt practical skills training. Under the task force proposal, law school students would be trained in negotiation, alternative dispute resolution, oral advocacy, law practice management and other practical skills.

Kevin O’Connell, dean of Pacific West College of Law, told the task force that he thought the recommendations were too broad and suggested instead focusing on training law students how to conduct trials.

“If I can do a trial, I can do anything else,” he said.

While supportive of the idea of practical skills training, task force members cited a number of concerns at the meeting, including additional costs for cash-strapped law school students.

Task force member Richard Frankel said he is worried there may not be enough pro bono opportunities for California’s large number of law graduates.

“Fifty hours, I think that’s terrific, but do we have a mechanism in place that pro bono organizations can actually use these folks? Frankel said. “Are we asking something that is feasible?”

Michael Winn, senior staff attorney for OneJustice, a statewide organization that supports nonprofits that give free legal help to low-income Californians, told the task force that there is no shortage of need. The trick is having enough legal service professionals to match volunteers with work.

“The demand is great,” Winn said. “We need as many hands on deck as possible.”

The task force is scheduled to meet next on March 4 to consider the final draft of its report.