Law Students Need Professional Development, Too

By Kathy Morris

Do law schools properly prepare students for the reality of day-to-day legal practice?  The consensus – from recent graduates to veteran practitioners – appears to be no.  However, some law schools are trying new approaches to providing practical training to future lawyers, and are finding ideas and inspiration from current practitioners.

Law schools often feature the concept of “practice readiness” on their websites, promote their use of legal clinics (which are an important component of legal education but hardly the only tool needed to promote practice readiness), and say they prepare students not just to think like lawyers, but to be ready to work in the profession.  One school even greets callers with a recorded message stating it’s “the practice readiness law school.”  However, recent graduates and longtime practitioners find law schools fall short in preparing students for the rigors of daily practice.

For example, the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, which issued its final report in January 2014, heard from recent graduates “that they received insufficient development of core competencies that make one an effective lawyer, particularly those relating to representation and service to clients.” That finding was echoed in the responses received to a survey conducted of lawyers as part of the launch of the Legal Profession PREP Class™, a practice-readiness pilot project introduced by Under Advisement, Ltd. in 2013 for students and recent graduates of Chicago-area law schools.

The survey was sent by the Illinois State Bar Association to its members in Cook and surrounding counties.  More than 300 responses were received.  The largest group of respondents had been in practice for more than 30 years, and 8 percent of completed surveys came from newly minted lawyers.  Respondents were balanced by gender (52% women, 48% men) and came from all sizes and sectors of the profession, with 41% in a two- to 10-person environment, and 42% from larger organizations of 101 to 1000+ lawyers.

The key question in the survey was “Are new lawyers well-prepared to succeed in entry-level positions?”  Fifty-four percent of respondents answered no; 33% responded yes, and the remaining 13% responded with “don’t know.”

Necessary Skills

The survey listed 30 abilities and attributes, organized in six categories, that are essential for new lawyers.  The survey asked respondents if each needed more emphasis, less emphasis, or about the same emphasis as now occurs in law school.

Two-thirds (more than 200) of the respondents ranked six skills as needing more emphasis in law school:

  • Conveying Complex Information Clearly
  • Listening Effectively
  • Expressing Cogent Conclusions
  • Managing Projects Efficiently
  • Understanding Financial Documents
  • Posing Practical Solutions

More than half (17) of the remaining skills also were rated as in need of more emphasis by 150-198 respondents.

Pointed Commentary

The importance of these skills received even more pointed and sometimes poignant emphasis in the comments survey respondents made in noting the one skill they thought most needed more emphasis in law school:

  • It does not matter if you’re the most intelligent lawyer in the world if you can’t effectively communicate your thoughts and conclusions.
  • I don’t think communication skills are taught often enough or emphasized enough.

Representative comments on the specific, most-needed communication skill included:

  • As a new attorney, [conveying complex information clearly]is one of the most difficult tasks for me. Translating legalese to clients and explaining legal concepts is definitely a weakness of mine that was NEVER discussed in law school.
  • Young lawyers simply do not know [how to]do this today.

As to the importance of the skill of listening effectively, respondents stated:

  • The best way to demonstrate what you do not know is by speaking, especially when you are in the presence of a client. Active listening gleans important information about the issues, attitudes and expectations of the client. Make a mistake in any of those three areas and getting paid and being respected for your work can easily become an issue.
  • [F]ew young lawyers know how to listen effectively. This comment is related not to understanding the law, but understanding what clients, opposing counsel and judges are really saying.
  • It all starts with listening, we found, from taking in one’s first assignment to developing business opportunities later in one’s career. One’s eagerness to impress many times gets in the way of truly understanding the needs, concerns, or issues that the assigning lawyer is trying to convey and the working relationship as a result may [get off]on the wrong foot from the start.

Expressing cogent conclusions and managing projects efficiently were also top skills judged to be in need of greater emphasis by law schools.  On those, respondents commented:

  • Most law clerks who are working in the office do not have the confidence or the skills to communicate their ideas/projects/research cogently and confidently.
  • Beginning attorneys tend to be good at research and writing, but often are afraid or unable to [convey]cogent conclusions [from]conflicting information, which is usually the most significant desire of clients when engaging legal advice.
  • Many new attorneys are unable to provide or articulate recommendations on strategy or courses of action in cases after conducting research or drafting memos on the legal issues.
  • Law students tend to be inefficient and learning efficiency and multi-tasking will enhance their career.

Understanding financial documents is another area needing improvement, respondents said. Comments included:

  • Much of law is financial and requires adept reading of financial documents.
  • It doesn’t matter what area of law, they all require a basic understanding of financial documents.
  • In a smaller law firm particularly, new lawyers need to be productive and cognizant of the bottom line. It’s not school, it’s not a game, it’s a money-making business, and if they aren’t aware of their time, their costs and collection issues, their salaries eventually cannot be paid.
  • Law school should include at least one required [course]and offer electives on business management.

When asked what other practice readiness skills topped their list of suggestions for law schools to prioritize, respondents also highlighted:

  • Writing Artfully
  • Handling Discovery
  • Drafting Contracts Carefully
  • Developing Business.

Representative comments included:

  • New lawyers need training in how to write letters and emails, not just legal briefs…in how to write clearly and precisely, without legal jargon, and with the appropriate audience in mind. Careful editing with attention to every detail in a document should be emphasized, as well.
  • Discovery is a big part of my job. I feel like this wasn’t a large focus in law school. We learned the tools, but not necessarily how to use them effectively. I took trial practice and moot court, but I haven’t had a trial or an appellate argument. I have had about 5-6 depositions and multiple witness interviews…[this]wasn’t really covered in law school.
  • There should be a third-year course that covers interrogatories, requests for disclosure, requests for production, requests for admission and, most importantly, depositions (including evidence depositions) of witnesses, physicians, parties and experts.
  • We’re taught how to analyze contracts, but have no idea how to go about turning a blank piece of paper into a solid contract.
  • I don’t think there is a law school out there that is teaching business development. If you’re going to succeed at all you need to know the basics of running a business, and what it means to have an entrepreneurial mindset.
  • I was a guest speaker at a 1L forum at [one of the Chicago-area law schools]. When I started talking about bringing in business the [students]just zoned out. Law students have a reality check when they get out into the legal field and realize that bringing in business is the most important asset you can bring to a firm.

Change in the Works

As the last comment indicates, some law schools have responded to these perceived gaps with recent professional development innovations, including more practice readiness courses (See, for example, “Helping New Grads Be Better Lawyers Faster” in the ABA Law Practice Magazine, Vol. 39, No. 3 (May/June 2013), citing examples by Pepperdine, Berkeley, Harvard and St. John’s. January/February 2014 issue also highlighted Hamline Law’s new course, “Teaching for Success: The Business of Lawyering.”  See also the roundtable on “What Law Firms Expect from New Lawyers” in Law Practice Today, (March 2013), citing examples from Case Western and Santa Clara University.)

Larger initiatives include the University of Chicago Law School’s Doctoroff Business Leadership Program. The result of a year-long alumni/faculty planning effort and a $5 million gift by Bloomberg L.P. CEO (and University of Chicago alum) Daniel Doctoroff, the program will combine business courses (such as entrepreneurial finance, accounting and financial management) with business mentoring and internships.

“I am absolutely convinced that teaching core business and financial skills is critical to whatever career law students pursue,” Doctoroff noted in the announcement of the program.

More is needed, as indicated in the Legal Profession PREP Class findings. Advances need not always be full courses or multi-million-dollar projects.  More modest steps, including folding more interactivity into already existing classes and legal clinics to develop the abilities prioritized in the PREP Class findings also would be helpful.  The most important thing is for law schools to realize that an expanded definition of practice readiness is needed to help make graduating law students trulyready for the profession.


About the Author

Kathy Morris is a lawyer and longtime legal career advisor. For the full 2014 Legal Profession PREP Class Report, please email her.

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