Inside Perspective: Legal apprenticeship

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc.  He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

I strongly believe that every potential lawyer should be required to serve an intense apprenticeship where she actually learns to practice law (or at least begins to learn what the practice of law is all about), before she is permitted to take on the grave responsibility of lawyering to real people.  Does law school really teach lawyering skills?  In my opinion, law school teaches the basic principles of law, but the real learning takes place outside the classroom under the tutelage of real lawyers.

Should we ask our respective Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commissions to enhance practice requirements to include a sort of a legal “residency” (like a medical residency)  where the lawyer is not permitted to actually hang out a shingle until she works, hard, in a law firm environment.  I suggest most certainly yes!

Law school does not teach students how to be lawyers.  Just ask any lawyer with any experience under her belt, nobody with whom I have ever discussed this will ever tell you that she learned lawyering in law school.  Lawyering is a street skill, you take the black letter law and general principles you learn in law school, and apply them in the real world.

There are no Mr. Whitacres or Mrs. Blackacres in the real world.  There is John the neighbor down the street, or Big Corporation Inc., or Closely Held Business LLC, all which have problems that rarely fit the law school model.  Not only because the facts are usually a lot grayer than we are led to believe in school, but because these are real people, standing in front of you, baring their souls, with real problems who want real answers that will have a real impact on their lives.

The law profession needs smart, wise, ethical people performing in legal roles because our profession really does impact people’s lives in very serious, life changing ways.  I don’t care how many cadavers my doctor has cut open, but I do care how many operations on live people she has performed under the guidance of an experienced practitioner to get her to the point where she can competently operate on me.  Is being a lawyer really much different than being a doctor in terms of the impact it has on people and business?

I often use quotes in this column to illustrate a point.  Today, I would like to leave you with two, both of which come from the arts.  The first quote is from country singer, Chet Atkins,  “A long apprenticeship is the most logical way to success. The only alternative is overnight stardom, but I can’t give you a formula for that.”  Accent on a “long” apprenticeship and the logical nature of such an apprenticeship leading to success.

The second quote is from the great German writer Goethe,  “No one has ever completed their apprenticeship.”  Now isn’t that the truth!


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