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Task force supports practical skills training requirement

By Susan McRae
Special to the Bar Journal

A State Bar task force studying legal competency of lawyers entering the profession has concluded that some form of practical skills training is necessary before being licensed to practice in the state. But the panel is still grappling with just what form that training will take.

“There’s a broad consensus that practical training for new lawyers over and above passage of the bar is something that needs to be addressed,” said outgoing State Bar President Jon B. Streeter, who chairs the Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform.

Although there’s no “one-size-fits-all” type of training, Streeter said,  “it may be that a good answer to the question is an ‘all-of-the-above’ type approach.”

Task force members expressed concern about the cost of such an undertaking and whether there would be enough programs available to accommodate the 12,000 students who apply to be lawyers each year, especially during a time of economic crisis and state budget cuts.

Streeter set up the 21-member task force earlier this year to study the need for improved practical skills training amid growing concern that law schools were turning out students versed in legal theory, but lacking in real-world application. Task force members include lawyers, judges, academics and business professionals, each bringing a unique perspective to the undertaking.

At its last meeting on Sept. 25 in Los Angeles, the group considered an array of methods toward achieving the goal, including state-approved apprenticeships and mentoring programs administered through law firms, public agencies, the courts or nonprofit public interest organizations. The training could be either a pre- or post-admission requirement. Streeter also said he’d thought about whether the training could be connected to some form of debt relief for new lawyers.

“We are all in this together,” Streeter said. “As a profession, we need to partner with law schools and with courts and other governmental agencies in order to bring a new focus to training young lawyers. I think we can do that by encouraging active practitioners to get involved in mentoring … and also by offering credit so that the trend in law schools is encouraged.”

Task force member Patti White, a former State Bar board  member who currently serves on the Committee of Bar Examiners, suggested extending the period between taking the bar exam and getting results and to fit in a four-month apprenticeship or mentoring program. The program could be state-supervised and run.

But Audrey B. Collins, who recently stepped down as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, said she wasn’t persuaded that there would be enough apprenticeships to go around for the number of law school graduates, especially in a four-month window. She noted, for example, that neither the Los Angeles County district attorney, public defender or alternate public defender offices were hiring. Although her court has a clinic for self-represented litigants, she said even those clinics can only take a limited number of volunteers that they can train and supervise. In addition, she said, students would be competing for those slots with lawyers whose firms now require them to do pro bono work every year.

Cost was another factor raised by academic members, who noted it’s a lot more cost-effective to run law schools in the traditional way with lecturing professors and students in the audience rather than working in legal clinics. Suggestions for overcoming the challenges included allowing public service work to be performed in areas of need outside California, encouraging involvement of local and specialty bar associations and considering   waivers for those students who study law to enhance their professional skills, but have no interest in practicing.

The trend toward preparing law students in practical skills isn’t new. Delaware and Vermont have for years required law school graduates to work in the legal field before they can practice in those states. Other states require or are considering requiring new bar admittees have a state-approved mentor during their first year of practice.

Streeter said he was particularly impressed with a New York plan to require students to perform 50 hours of pro bono work before being admitted to practice. While it focuses on helping low-income people gain access to justice, he said he thought some of its elements could be incorporated into the task force’s plan.

Because of the large number of lawyers in California and broad variety of practice areas, Streeter said he favors a hybrid approach that considers the varied concerns of all the task force members. Streeter, State Bar Executive Director Joseph L. Dunn and bar staff are scheduled to draft a proposal outline for the next meeting on Nov. 7.

Susan McRae is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who has covered the California legal community for 20 years.