Summary: The profession has long felt that law schools fail to train their students properly. Cooley is one of the exceptions.
David Segal published a thought-provoking essay, “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering,” in the November 19, 2011 issue of the New York Times. He took the position that few law schools teach their students how to be actual lawyers.
Mr. Segal cited the lament of corporate attorney Scott B. Connolly and his firm, Drinker Biddle & Reath, about the lack of practical training of first-year associates, using as an example their lack knowledge about how to close a corporate merger. Ignoring the fact that Mr. Connolly, too, likely did not know how to close a merger when he graduated from law school, his firm has decided to give new associates in his department a four-month primer on corporate law before they can bill a client for their work.
The profession has long felt that law schools fail to train their students properly. Cooley is one of the exceptions. We were founded in 1972 on the principle that experienced lawyers and judges can effectively teach both the law and the practice of law, thereby best preparing law students to enter the profession. To this day, we have observed that Cooley’s rigorous program of law instruction and practical training equips our students to hit the ground running.
In 1992, the American Bar Association’s “Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap” published an authoritative report on legal education and the legal profession titled Legal Education and Professional Development: An Educational Continuum. Widely known as the “MacCrate Report” in recognition of the stature of task force chairperson and former ABA President Robert MacCrate, the task force found not so much a gap as a continuum in the responsibility for legal training across law school and law practice, which it described as an “arduous road of professional development along which all prospective lawyers should travel.” MacCrate Report, at 8. The task force found that the “gap” is instead one between expectation and reality. “The lament of the practicing bar is a steady refrain: ‘They can’t draft a contract, they can’t write, they’ve never seen a summons, the professors have never been inside a courtroom.’ Law schools offer the traditional responses: ‘We teach them how to think, we’re not trade schools, we’re the centers of scholarship and learning, practice is best taught by practitioners.’” Id. at 4.
As Mr. Segal noted, and as MacCrate recognized, many law schools, especially the university-based schools, are staffed with professors who aspire to scholarship and teaching in meeting with the university’s cultural academic standards. Law schools attain higher status, to the extent that should even matter, largely on the scholarly reputations of the faculty. Some of the elite schools view experienced practitioners as presumptively disqualified from joining the faculty. On the other hand, as both Mr. Segal and MacCrate recognized, practitioners believe that their own schools left them deficient in legal skills and view academic scholarship as increasingly irrelevant to the practice of law. Id. at 5.
Thus, upon hearing the Drinker Biddle & Reath lament about the unpreparedness of its new associates, one might ask in light of MacCrate:
- “Why do you hire associates who come from law schools that do not train their students to be lawyers?” or
- “Why do you not recruit at a law school that emphasizes practical legal education, taught by practitioners of the law rather than by professors who have never practiced?” or
- “Why do you prefer to recruit at a law school whose law review publishes articles that only other academics read rather than at a school that espouses practical legal scholarship?” or
- “Why do you play the ‘prestige game’ when your clients never ask you what law school you or your associates attended?”
I would invite Drinker Biddle & Reath and all other law firms to recruit students at Cooley Law School, where the faculty – tenured faculty – have been partners at major law firms, general counsel of corporations, judges on courts of record, and have tried and argued cases at every level of jurisprudence from the local zoning board to the U.S. Supreme Court.
I would have them consider the skills that Cooley students learn – on top of the legal knowledge – from teachers who have negotiated deals, drafted contacts, and closed purchases and who use that real-world experience to teach their students how to practice law.
I would have them know that Cooley’s students are required to complete a practicum – a clinical program or an externship at one of more than 2,000 sites nationally – as a condition to receiving their J.D. degree.
I would have them read Cooley’s Journal of Ethics and Responsibility or its Journal of Practical and Clinical Law, where they might actually learn something valuable to their practice.
I would have them know that Cooley’s skills teams – including the team that won the 2011 ABA Client Counseling National Competition – compete favorably against the so-called “elite” law schools.
In short, I would invite the law firms, who after all are running big businesses, to do what rational businesses in most every other industry save the legal profession do: recruit and hire candidates who bear the knowledge, skills and ethics needed to practice competently – perhaps even in apparent disregard of the relative “prestige” of the law schools.
And for all who want to learn to be practicing lawyers, I would invite you to enroll at Cooley Law School.
James D. Robb
Associate Dean for Development and Alumni Relations and Senior Counsel
Thomas M. Cooley Law School