In the Conference on Canadian Clinical Legal Education conducted by Western Law Professor and Director of Community Legal Services, Douglas Ferguson, that took place on 22nd and 23rd of October 2010, the emphasis was on ways to prepare the law students for the professional world through establishing a more extensive and perhaps mandatory clinical program. In a private discussion that I had with Professor Ferguson, he expressed concern over the fact that compared with many other professional students such as medical and dental, who rigorously undergo a pattern of practical education, law students are graduating rather unprepared for the real world.
Recently, the Law School Survey of Students Engagement (LSSSE) released the reports of its 2010 survey that gathered information from students of 77 Canadian and American law schools on how they felt about the quality of education they were getting. The results of this survey reflect Professor Ferguson’s concern. About half of the students felt that they were not inadequately prepared for the practice. “Predictably perhaps, the study found that students with practical experience in clinics or pro bono work were more likely than other students to report that their law schools provided adequate professional preparation…” Other factors that were found to have a positive impact on the overall development of students included interaction with the faculty. More specifically the report outlines that engaging in discussions with professors regarding the assignments, talking about job search activities or even talking to them through email, result into a more positive impact on the professional development of law students.
The survey also found that only a fraction of students takes advantage of the enriching opportunities available to them. “Results show that only one-third of third-year law students worked with a faculty member on a research project during their law school careers. Only 20 percent of all students frequently (“often” or “very often”) discussed ideas from readings or classes with faculty, and less than a third (29 percent) among them frequently discussed their career plans with a professor.”
The International Business Times article from which I gathered the result of the LSSSE survey seems to tie in the “under-emphasis by law schools in preparing their students” for the professional world with the difficulties faced by law school graduates in obtaining positions. It is undeniable that the onus of law schools in producing prepared law students cannot be discharged unless adequate, though perhaps competitive opportunities are provided for law students to take advantage of in building themselves up for the practice. Though it may be different in US law schools, in my experience, Western Law provides ample opportunities for its students. Hence, the need for an exclusively Canadian survey with criteria similar to LSSSE makes itself apparent.
One question that comes to mind is whether with the strong emphasis placed by the employers on law students’ transcripts, there is any time left for us to try to engage in clinical programs. It is an uncontested fact that firms and government organizations alike look at your transcripts first and you may as well save some trees and not apply if you’ve got Cs and/or low Bs and not much legal experience. That’s when the students usually turn to gaining practical experience to add some weight to their application for positions that are not occupied by A students yet. After all if you’ve got straight As, why bother with clinics? That makes the conclusion somehow easier to draw that clinical work is usually used as a “secondary option” or an “alternative” when students feel less confident about the impression that their marks may make on the employers. Though it cant be denied that many students turn to clinics “genuinely” to gain experience, there remains the concern that due to the pressure from the job market, this option may be just used as a “plan B” by some. This no-so-genuine interest in clinical work, to my opinion, not only impacts the quality of experience gained by the students, but also the efficiency and worth of the results delivered to the clients.
Whether a mandatory clinical program in Canadian law schools will result in more prepared law students is subject to debate, though not too difficult to agree with. But in contrast to what the International Business Times article concludes, whether such programs will “enhance [law students’] professional prospects in the long run” is only more speculative.
Regardless, the results of LSSSE, unsurprisingly point out that the practical work in law school may no longer be just extracurricular to the legal education but rather essential and necessary for it.