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’
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
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
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
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
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.