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NCBP News Spring 2016 Issue
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It's Time for Law Schools to Revise Their Curricula to Permit and Encourage "For Credit & Pay" Externships

By: John Thies, NCBP Communications Committee Chair

During my Illinois State Bar Association presidency in 2012-13, I appointed a special committee to examine the impact of the increasing amount of law student debt on the delivery of legal services.  After a series of five hearings that took place throughout the state of Illinois involving witnesses from all aspects of our profession (and other research), this special committee produced a report which received acclaim throughout the country both for calling attention to this problem in a way that few others had done, and also for the creative and practical legal education reforms that were suggested.

In the course of these hearings, one of the consistent messages from the witnesses was that, not only did the profession have a crisis on its hands in placing law school graduates in positions that paid well enough to cover the debt service on their staggering debt, but many of these same students were leaving law school ill-prepared to meet the standards of prospective employers.  In fact, it was becoming an increasing practice for law firms in particular to look beyond recent graduates and focus on hiring lawyers with at least several years of experience (a real kick in the teeth for debt-burdened new lawyers).

An exception to this last problem appears to exist where the newly minted lawyer has experience and training with the potential hiring firm as a student law clerk, giving the prospective employer a higher degree of confidence in the applicant.  Under these circumstances, firms are reporting that they are more willing to hire the student directly from law school.

Unfortunately, our current system has heretofore not facilitated this sort of on-the-job training to the degree it could, in part, because students are not currently allowed to receive both credit and pay for their clerkships.  Moreover, even when students are able to obtain clerkships, there are often significant time constraints minimizing the benefits of these opportunities (e.g., for a student required to take 15 hours of coursework in a semester, it is hard to get away to a law firm to work a meaningful amount of hours in a given week).  For this reason, our association and many others in the profession have advocated changing the rules to remove these limitations.

The good news is that the council of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (the entity tasked with promulgating accreditation standards for law schools) recently voted to accept the recommendation of its Standards Review Committee (SRC) and approve changes to Standard 304, addressing experiential learning, and 305, which concerns study outside the law school classroom setting.  Both relate to the requirements for the operation and management of externship programs.  As members of the bar have been hoping, the approved changes remove the prohibition on students receiving compensation for work done in a credit-bearing externship program, and create many opportunities for law schools to explore various "apprenticeship" style programs in cooperation with law firms and other private sector employers.  By the time the ABA House of Delegates meets in August, the Section expects that these reforms will be included in a resolution for consideration by the House.

The changes that have been approved by the section council impose additional requirements to assure that externship programs are quality educational experiences for participating students.  I suggest that the need for the development of models which meet these requirements presents an excellent opportunity for law school/bar association partnerships. 

As with many of the challenges facing legal education, there are many advantages to the bar and Academy moving forward collaboratively.  Accordingly, it is none too soon for law schools and bar associations to begin planning to put these reforms into practice.  All will benefit!