Illusions of Competence

BARBRI’s “State of the Legal Field Survey” reports that “71 percent of 3L law students believe they possess sufficient practice skills.  In contrast, only 23 percent of practicing attorneys who work at companies that hire recent law school graduates believe recent law school graduates possess sufficient practice skills.”

This finding is puzzling and astounding.

It is puzzling because the report on the website doesn’t define the critical term, “sufficient practice skills.”  The survey includes a separate question about whether recent graduates are prepared to practice law “right now.”

According to the survey, 76 percent of 3L law students believe they are ready.  This is compared with 56 percent of the practicing attorneys who believe that, “in general, recent law school graduates are prepared to practice law.”  The figures for the 3L students for the two questions are very similar but the difference between the 23 and 56 percent figures for the attorneys is very puzzling.

It would be nice if the survey used a concrete operational definition of sufficient skills or practice-readiness.

Call me crazy, but I think of readiness in terms of being able to meet with a client or get a case file and handle the matter reasonably competently.  You know, without being spun in circles by one’s counterpart lawyers or messing up the cases too much.  Heck, it would be nice if they could competently produce and file the range of documents that lawyers prepare all the time.

Or let’s make it more personal.  Would you be confident that a recent law graduate would do a good job in handling a garden-variety legal case of yours?  Many of us teach at schools giving certificates or even LL.M. degrees in dispute resolution.  Would you trust recent graduates with those certifications to mediate or arbitrate a case of yours?

I think it’s telling that some corporate clients don’t want first- and second-year associates to work on their cases.  And these are our top-ranked graduates.  And, of course, this assumes that the graduates have jumped through all the hoops to get licensed, including passing an arduous bar exam.

Of course, many new graduates are supervised by experienced lawyers, which provides greater assurance of competent work.  But when we license lawyers, there is no requirement of supervision, and some new lawyers practice solo or with limited supervision.  So when we talk about “readiness,” we shouldn’t assume that graduates necessarily will be carefully supervised.

Part of the problem with the survey – and even the hypos in the preceding paragraph – is that it refers to the population of graduates in general, without recognizing that there is a range of skill and readiness within the population. In other words, some graduates are more competent than others.

So it would be better to estimate the proportion of recent graduates who are competent to practice by some valid standard.  (Ignore for the moment that probably no one is in a position to validly make such an assessment.)

My estimate would be near zero.

I assume that a small proportion of graduates would be minimally competent by my standards.  I’m thinking of some graduates who had extensive experience in law offices working as legal secretaries or paralegals.  Some graduates who had extensive experience working with legal matters and lawyers might also fit.  For example, someone who dealt with legal matters in business for a long time might be competent to practice business law.

Law schools routinely produce a stratum of graduates who are very competent to work as clerks for appellate judges.  But I don’t consider that as “legal practice.”

Despite the limits of the BARBRI survey, it suggests that US law schools produce a lot of graduates with illusions of competence.

3 thoughts on “Illusions of Competence”

  1. I do not think you are crazy—I too think of readiness in terms of being able to meet with a client or handle a case in a competent manner. I would like to know if these students actually read the question, because I find it astounding that so many actually think that they are sufficiently prepared…I don’t. As a law student, I would read “sufficient practice skills” as meaning I could meet with a client and handle their case from start to finish—and I doubt too many could honestly say that they are competent enough to do this—and if they do answer yes, there is definitely an “illusion of competence”.
    I have to assume that most students have at least some practical experience before they graduate from law school in the form of internships, externships, or at a clinic. Maybe these students who feel they have sufficient practice skills felt that these experiences sufficiently prepared them for the practice of law. In my opinion, this is an illusion. Where I currently work, I am given a particular task—drafting quiet title actions for lien position issues—do I think that I am competent in this specific area that the firm feels confident allocating to me? Yes. Do I think I have sufficient practice skills generally? No. Maybe these students are getting an “illusion of competence” because they, like myself, have a good understanding and ability to work a small subset of a much larger field? I can’t say for sure.
    What I do know, is that most law students in internships and externships are not getting much practical experience at all. We do legal research and writing and work on a small issue for a much larger case…(at least in my experience)—this is not competence to practice law in general! The reason we get the legal and writing tasks is because this is a risk-free task that attorneys can allocate. I think the only way you can have sufficient skills to practice law is to actually practice, and as law students we haven’t been afforded the opportunity to really practice.
    I agree, to really answer this “illusion of competence” question there needs to be better criteria on what exactly sufficient skills or practice-readiness means.

  2. I think this article explains perfectly why the ABA should consider revising the current law school standards. Three years of sitting in a classroom, reading cases, and listening to professors does not prepare students for the practice of law or even for the “real world.” Even though law students are encouraged to participate in law clinics and complete externships/internships, the practical experience we gain is not enough to prepare us for the actual practice of law. There are numerous articles where people who have suggested a one or two year program where students attend class, and then a one year “apprenticeship” where the students receive appropriate supervision each step of the way. I believe a model like that would be the most successful in preparing students for the legal world. Such a model would produce more competent attorneys straight out of law school. No one is going to be perfect at something they have just started a career in, but it sure would help to have as much supervised practical experience as possible before we are thrown to the wolves.

  3. The book, “Outliers,” by Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “10,000-Hour Rule.” It takes 10,000 hours of practice in a field to achieve success and mastery. I realize there are critics of this “rule,” but continual experience, practice, and proper training help a person improve their competence in a particular field. I would not feel comfortable having a person with only three years of ballet training (E.g., attending class a few times a week at a small town dance studio) teaching a child how to dance. I would want a professional dancer who trained for at least 15 hours each week throughout their entire childhood at a legitimate studio that lead to eventual employment with a professional ballet company. Once you do a little math, after 3-4 years of law school a law student probably will not reach 5,000 hours within that time period (this includes attending class and studying, not work/internships in the legal field).

    I think people in general have different expectations and standards regarding the definition of “sufficient skills or practice-readiness.” Law students likely do not know what sufficient legal skills comprise, except maybe the students who have worked extensively in the legal field.

    I am not confident that a recent law school graduate would do a good job handling a complex child custody dispute or a patent case compared to attorneys with years of experience. I would be a bit more confident if a recent graduate was being supervised by an experienced attorney(s). Additionally, I would not want a recent graduate to mediate or arbitrate a dispute unless that graduate had experience prior to attending law school.

    I agree that a small portion of graduates would be minimally competent by your standards. For instance, a new graduate specializing in patent law who just took the bar exam and the Patent Bar would be competent to practice if that graduate had fifteen years of experience as a software developer and experience as an expert witness to patent cases prior to and during law school. Having a Ph.D. in Computer Science and already being a Patent Agent would be helpful too.

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