June 27, 2009
Recent Developments in Lawyer Skills Training
Posted by Gordon Smith

Two years ago, I was asked to offer some advice to then-incoming Dean Erwin Chemerinsky as he builds the law school at UC-Irvine. Paul Caron asked me to be provocative, so I obliged, advising the Dean to "concentrate your resources on what law schools (should) do better than legal employers – classroom instruction." That may not seem so provocative, but the corollaries -- eliminate the legal writing program, moot court competitions, student-edited law reviews, clinics, or any other co-curricular offerings -- inspired a lively discussion on the blog, and I have been told by more than one legal writing instructor that the discussion continued in other fora. All to the good, in my view.

With regard to legal writing, I say a bit more here, but that is not the focus of this post. Here I am more interested in the continuing debate about skills training. In a particularly thoughtful follow up to my original post, Steve Hurley at Wisconsin wrote this:

Long ago, we substituted schools for apprenticeships as the premise for the practice of law. Few would argue that that was bad. But, is not the teaching of "skills" the academic institutionalization of an apprenticeship? If so, is it the exclusive way that a lawyer ought be prepared? Did we throw away too much of apprenticeship when we saw that schools could better teach the core curriculum? We can offer an approach to skills which the marketplace can't; but, so too can the marketplace offer an equally valid approach which we cannot. Thus, for example, we coordinate, just as Smith suggests, with prosecution and defense offices to offer our students a place in the market in which to learn trial and criminal practice skills. In doing this, don't we recognize the validity, at least in part, of Smith's suggestion? And ought we not explore further ways in which to do this?

With that background, I was particularly interested in this story about Drinker Biddle and this story about the Howrey law firm, both of which are creating a new skills training program for young associates. The idea is to pay new associates a smaller salary in exchange for a much lower number of billable hours. Instead of billing clients, new associates will be able work on pro bono matters and receive skills training from experienced lawyers.

These changes were prompted by the recent economic downturn (ATL: "Instead of just firing associates, deferring first years, no offering summers, or instituting across the board salary cuts, Howrey seems to be trying to do a little more than waiting for the recession to end."), but I hope they portend a movement by firms to take greater responsibility for skills training, rather than blaming law schools for not doing something that we are ill-equipped to do well.

Thanks to my colleague Cliff Fleming for bringing these developments to my attention.

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