Saturday, March 24, 2007

Thinking Like a Lawyer

From the first days of law school, students are told they will be taught to "think like a lawyer." What that means is that students will learn how to look at an issue from every possible angle and argue for virtually possible side in a case. The exercise is designed to help break down a person's personal prejudices in a situation by forcing them to view things from different perspectives.

While this is a useful (and essential) skill for young lawyers, shouldn't they also be trained how to act like lawyers?

Wallflower at Ms JD makes a good argument for law schools giving their students practical, real world experience, as well as theory in two posts here and here.

Her solution is to mimic the medical school example where third-year students work through a series of clinical rotations to learn real world applications of classroom theory.

A more logical solution would be to require clinical education or internships as part of legal education, perhaps making the third year a series of rotations through various kinds of legal practice, much as medical interns rotate through departments in a hospital. Law schools could form partnerships with law firms, individual practitioners, and government and private agencies and, together, these groups could create clinics for almost any area of practice in which there was student interest. The two-semester third-year internship program could be divided into four quarters, and students would have the option of devoting their time two or four rotations.

Devoting the third year to a variety of clinical experiences would expand students’ knowledge of the law and its practical applications and effects. With a quarter- or semester-long rotation in a business law clinic, students would be able to apply what they know about contracts, secured transactions, and protection of intellectual property. A rotation interning in a public defender’s or prosecutor’s office would give students with an interest in criminal law experience with arguing at bail hearings and filing motions. Family law or private client internships would give students so inclined an understanding of the drafting of wills or the negotiation of visitation between divorced parents. Students would have not just a grasp on the theory of law or what it means to “think like a lawyer;” they would have a greater understanding of how to cope with real-world legal problems and develop practical solutions.

This seems to me to be an excellent idea for making a legal education more practical. Too many students (like me) graduate with the education but no actual experience handling the mundane areas of practicing law. Few students graduate knowing how to draft a will, file a temporary restraining order, or write a motion unless that person worked in a law office while in school. Requiring clinical rotations in the third year would force all students to get real world experience so that they were better prepared for life after law school.