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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

No link between clinical courses and law school expense, research shows

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

From the time a State Bar task force first started exploring whether to require more hands-on training for aspiring lawyers, law schools and others have raised the ugly specter of cost.

Critics worried that adding expensive clinical courses to law school curriculum would force tuition hikes, adding to new law school graduates’ already crushing debt.

So it came as a bit of a surprise, even to the law professor who conducted the research, that there is no statistical link between the quantity of experiential or clinical courses offered at a law school and the cost of that legal education.

Robert R. Kuehn, associate dean for clinical education at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said he’s encountered a lot of skepticism to his study results.

“A typical question is, ‘How is that possible?’ ” he said.

Kuehn sliced and diced the numbers every conceivable way to come to his conclusions, published on the Social Science Research Network. His research also showed that 79 percent of American Bar Association-accredited law schools have the capacity to provide every student with a clinical experience.

Kuehn said although he was surprised by the research results at first, the more he dug into the numbers he began to understand why tuition isn’t driven by the availability of hands-on courses.

Clinical or experiential courses are often taught by lower-paid adjunct professors or fellows. In some cases, grants or attorney fee awards can offset the costs. The real drivers of law school costs are the salaries of professors who teach doctrinal courses, merit-based scholarships and infrastructure, he said.

Kuehn presented his research on Feb. 3 to the Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform, which is determining how to implement new training requirements for lawyers in California. The task force has recommended:

  • 15 units of practice-based, experiential coursework or an apprenticeship equivalent during law school starting in 2017
  • 50 hours of legal services devoted to pro bono or modest means clients prior to admission or in the first year of practice starting in 2016
  • 10 additional MCLE (Minimum Continuing Legal Education) hours focused on law practice competency training or participation in a bar-certified mentoring program starting in 2015.

Task Force Chairman Jon B. Streeter thanked Kuehn for giving the task force the empirical data it needs to move forward.

“As with any type of major change, there is a lot of heat and not light,” Streeter said.

Also, at the meeting, the members of the task force began grappling with the details of how to make the requirements a reality.

The group discussed phasing in the coursework requirements to give law schools more time to incorporate more competency skills coursework into the curriculum.

UC Hastings College of the Law Professor Shauna Marshall said the group also needs to be mindful of how the plan fits in with similar regulations being considered by the American Bar Association.

The 30-member task force is scheduled to meet five times by September and make recommendations to the Board of Trustees for approval. The next meeting is March 10 in San Francisco.

State Bar CEO Joseph Dunn pointed out that staff members have been fielding calls from all over the country from people who are following the project. The decisions being made “will have a ripple effect across the nation,” he said.