View From the Classroom: Practical training

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

The Carnegie Foundation unleashed a flurry of activity four years ago when it released its study and recommendations on law school education, “Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law.”  Law schools, professional organizations, and law teachers laudably scrambled to study, digest, comment on, and even implement the recommendations, which largely centered around creating a more integrated curriculum with pervasive skills training and serious attention to professional responsibility.

But while the Carnegie Report refocused our attention on an integrated curriculum infused with skills training and professional responsibility, these ideas are not new.  Professional organizations like the Clinical Legal Education Association and the Legal Writing Institute have been promoting like ideas for some time now.  Some law schools have boldly experimented with them; others have built their entire curriculum around them.  And many teachers around the country and around the world have long-ago worked these ideas into their classes.

Indeed, the Carnegie Report appeared around the same time as Roy Stuckey’s “Best Practices for Legal Education,” and it stands on the shoulders of Robert MacCrate’s classic “Report of the Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap,” even if the emphasis is somewhat different.  Like ideas have a strong basis in the broader literature on educational theory and philosophy, perhaps most notably in the work of educational innovator John Dewey.

But these ideas have an even longer history.  As Rick Wilson, professor and director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the American University, recently told a group at a conference of the Global Alliance for Justice Education, Professor Blewitt Lee (a student of Christopher Columbus Langdell, who pioneered the case method) said this to the ABA in 1896:

It is odd if our profession is the only one in which students cannot have a practical training before they enter upon their life-work.  The medical student can have clinical instruction and hospital practice.  The clergyman, ere the seminary doors close behind him, can inflict his maiden efforts on his fellows, or on the weaker flocks of the faithful.  The civil engineer has already had a goodly share of field work before he leaves the technological halls.  But in this year of grace, most law students still go forth upon a long suffering public having only read books and disputed over them.  The evil of this condition cannot be remedied by any half measures, or cheap devices or cheap men.  To give practical instruction in law work will require immense intellectual labor, and the finest quality of teaching—but let us not say it is impossible because we have never done it, or even because we cannot do it.  I will even go so far as to admit that the difficulty of teaching the theory of the law may be child’s play compared to that of teaching its actual application to human affairs.

Despite over a century of innovation in legal education, the recommendations of the MacCrate Report, “Best Practices” and the Carnegie Report, and the good work of CLEA, LWI, and other organizations, Lee’s statement seems as relevant today as it was in 1896.

With the start of a new school year, we all have a new opportunity to revisit these ideas in our own classrooms, in our schools, and in the way we do legal education more generally—to deliver on Lee’s target of giving “practical instruction in law” and teaching the law’s “actual application to human affairs.”

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