It’s not exactly breaking news that a major function of American law schools is to train an upper stratum of students for jobs as associates in elite law firms and as judicial clerks. Parsing appellate case opinions and ace-ing closed-book exams are tasks especially well designed for this purpose.
Although these activities reflect some important competencies for lawyers, law schools’ priorities reflected in their heavy emphasis is way out of whack for the jobs that most students will get after graduation.
There are some ongoing developments about licensing lawyers that could cause law schools to improve their curricula. Although these developments could stimulate schools to make important changes, the changes are likely to be small and slow. Even so, shifts in licensing regimes reflect increased recognition of the importance of preparing students for the real world of practice.
Law schools and faculty don’t need to wait for implementation of new systems, however, to better prepare students for legal practice. This post describes how law schools can help students right now by using Real Practice System self-assessments to guide them in developing individualized portfolios. This should better equip them to get jobs satisfying their professional interests and perform well in those jobs.
So What’s The Problem?
The conclusions of the following studies (among others with similar findings) also are not breaking news.
The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System’s Foundations of Practice survey of lawyers identifies “foundations” that lawyers need soon after graduation. These include communication, emotional and interpersonal intelligence, passion, ambition, professionalism, and various other qualities and talents. Almost all of the foundations refer to skills and personal qualities that law schools don’t emphasize in their curricula. By contrast, law schools focus on things that only small proportions of the lawyers think are necessary soon after graduation.
The Building a Better Bar study found that new lawyers were “woefully unprepared” to work with clients. They had difficulty (1) communicating with clients, (2) managing expectations, (3) breaking bad news, (4) coping with difficult clients, (5) negotiating with counterparts and clients, and, (5) especially important, understanding the “big picture” of client matters.
Positive Developments for Licensing Lawyers
Although reforming legal education is like swimming in molasses, there are some hopeful signs of (slow) improvements. Starting in July 2026, the NextGen bar exam will include questions about client relationships and management, client counseling, negotiation, and dispute resolution. This could stimulate law schools to modify their curricula, though it remains to be seen how much they will do so.
Some states are considering changing their licensing methods to focus more on practical lawyering. These methods include experiential education in law school and/or supervised practice after graduation. This webpage identifies the status of jurisdictions’ efforts to reform their licensing methods.
New Hampshire has approved the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program, which is housed at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law. Under this program, which has operated for more than a decade, students “complete a rigorous program of experiential and doctrinal classes during their second and third years of law school. Through these classes they collect portfolios of work product that are reviewed by members of the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners.”
The Oregon Supreme Court “approved a Supervised Practice Portfolio Exam that law school graduates may pursue in lieu of the [Uniform Bar Exam]” starting for May 2024 graduates.
Other jurisdictions considering changes include California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington.
The Collaboratory On Legal Education and Licensing for Practice is a group of scholars who have studied the bar exam, licensing, and legal education for many years. They are working with several jurisdictions as they explore alternatives to the traditional bar exam. Deborah Jones Merritt is a member of the group and wrote an excellent article providing a theoretical framework for these efforts, Client-Centered Legal Education and Licensing. Here’s the abstract:
Jurisdictions have started to question the validity and fairness of the traditional bar exam. Several states are exploring new methods of assessing the knowledge and skills that new lawyers need to serve clients competently. This article outlines original research defining the competencies new lawyers use in practice; describes innovative licensing approaches in several states; and explains the psychometric principles supporting those new approaches. The article offers a starting place for professionals who want to develop a more valid, equitable, and inclusive method of measuring lawyer competence.
Use Portfolios to Help Students Plan Their Practice Systems
Deborah previously wrote a wonderful article describing how law students can use portfolios to guide their studies, Pedagogy, Progress, and Portfolios. Here’s how they work:
Professional learning portfolios allow students to map, document, and display their achievements. A good portfolio begins with learning objectives: what information and skills does a student need to master in order to perform as a professional in a particular field? After identifying these learning objectives, students pursue experiences designed to obtain the desired mastery. By documenting these experiences in the portfolio, students both track their progress and identify new learning goals. Finally, students may use the portfolio to display their achievements to employers; a portfolio may include course grades, detailed instructor evaluations, journal entries for clinical work, summaries of extracurricular experiences, writing samples, videotapes of simulated or real practice experiences, and any other information summarizing a student’s learning achievements.
Portfolios thus are more than a means of collecting information; they are part of the learning process. Cognitive scientists recognize that the best education occurs when students embrace specific learning goals, identify concrete steps for achieving those goals, and receive regular feedback on performance. By advancing at least two of these goals, portfolios contribute directly to student learning.
Law schools and students don’t need to wait for states to approve portfolios for licensing. They can use portfolios right now so that current students can be better prepared to practice after graduation.
By using Real Practice System self-assessments, students can analyze their backgrounds, values, and professional goals, which can provide the basis for their portfolio-driven activities. This post includes model assignments for students to describe how they would like to mediate, represent clients in mediation, and/or negotiate when they are in practice. This post includes a self-assessment questionnaire for students about lawyering generally.
Take a look.