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Legal job market woes complicate work of task force

By Laura Ernde
Staff writer

A task force researching the preparedness of newly minted California attorneys got a grim reality check last month from an out-of-state law professor:  Practical skills may not help students overcome the bleakest  job market in decades.

William D. Henderson

William D. Henderson, director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession at the University of Indiana, warned that the changing economics of the profession, which have switched from boom to bust, will complicate the task force’s goals.

Between 1978 and 2003, legal services as a percentage of the nation's GDP increased from .4 percent to 1.8 percent. But the high-end corporate work that was fueling that growth bottomed out in 2008. Still, law schools continue to churn out more and more lawyers who face grim employment prospects.

“Professional skills are not going to change this,” Henderson said, presenting a dizzying array of charts and graphics to back up his presentation.

Jon Streeter

“This makes my head spin,” said Jon Streeter, State Bar president and chair of the task force. “We’re in a period of rapid change, and we need to pay attention.”

Henderson said lawyers and law firms need to adapt to a market that has lost ground to inexpensive packaged legal services offered by the new players in the legal industry, such as Axiom Legal and the online

The goal of the Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform is to make sure lawyers are prepared to serve clients the day they get their license to practice. In its first two meetings since being assembled in April, the task force has heard testimony from a wide range of people, from academics to regulators of other professions.

The message from law school deans has been clear – tread lightly. A number of academics said market demand has already spurred an increase in practical skills course offerings, including externships, clinics and moot court exercises. Any regulation could have the unintended consequence of reversing that trend, they said.

“This is really not your parents’ legal education,” Dean Steven R. Smith of California Western School of Law told the task force at its first meeting in June.

Another consideration for the task force is student debt. Because some practical skills courses such as clinics are more expensive than lecture courses, a new requirement could add to the already heavy burden for graduates facing a difficult job market. In addition, academics said, since law school curricula are already packed, students would have to forgo something else in order to fulfill a practical skills requirement.

State Bar Executive Director/CEO Joe Dunn pointed out that the bar is the only professional licensing organization in California that doesn’t require some type of practical skills training.

Streeter said the agency’s public protection role demands consideration of a practical skills requirement. He said law schools are not the sole source for practical skills knowledge.

“Lawyers should participate in training of new members,” he said.

In August, the task force heard from Gregory J. Kamer, who was on the Nevada State Bar Board of Governors when it adopted a post-admission six-month mentorship requirement in which experienced lawyers show the ropes to new lawyers.

“We are trying to create a culture of understanding [that] a license is a privilege, and it’s an obligation to do pro bono and serve underserved communities,” he said. “If you want to be part of this club, you have to pay your dues.”

The push for more practical skills training in the profession goes back at least 20 years when a task force of the American Bar Association produced the MacCrate Report, which found that law schools tend to emphasize legal theory at the expense of more practice-oriented instruction.

However, a recent survey by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar shows an increase in the number of courses that emphasize professional skills such as legal writing, ethics and pro bono service, said Catherine Carpenter, who chairs the section’s curriculum committee.

One law school dean, Heather Georgakis of Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law, said the practice of law has become far more complicated than it used to be and “law schools can and should do more” to prepare students.

Georgakis asked the task force to consider pairing a requirement for post-admission training with a provisional license.  It would allow students to acquire specialized skills while practicing, which is more effective than learning in a classroom. Training could be done at a law firm or school setting and would be tailored to the new lawyer’s practice area.

“They’d be taking those classes in a specific legal context,” she said. “We just cannot teach them all they need to know in three years.”

Most states that require practical skills do so in the form of postgraduate continuing education.

The dean of an online law school affiliated with Kaplan University also pointed out that the cost of additional training may add to the student’s debt burden, but  still won’t help solve the larger problem – highlighted by Henderson – of law students stymied by the poor job market.

“We will have created more highly competent, unemployed lawyers,” said Greg Brandes of Concord Law School.

 The task force will hold public hearings on Sept. 25 in Los Angeles and Nov. 7 in San Francisco.