Law schools in the US may be teaching their students great theory and technical skills related to the legal discipline, but a recent study reveals that schools are preparing only about half of their students to make an effective transition from being students to lawyers.
The 2010 Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) carried out by researchers at Indiana University at Bloomington's Center for Postsecondary Research shows that almost a half of students in law school feel inadequately prepared when it comes to key aspects of professional preparation, such as coping with the day to day stress of the profession, performing effectively in a team with other attorneys or solving the ethical and moral dilemmas that may arise in the course of 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, especially in areas such as understanding the needs of clients, working cooperatively within a team and understanding critical professional values.
The other fact that was found to have a positive impact on overall development of a student was interaction with the faculty - encompassing such things as discussion of assignments with a faculty member; talking about career plans or job search activities; discussion of ideas from readings with faculty members even outside of class, communicating with them by email etc.
However, while such activities were found to substantively aid in the ethical and professional development of law school participants, the report says that a majority of such valuable opportunities are often missed. 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. Interestingly, women were even less likely than their male classmates to ask questions in class or to discuss assignments with their professors, according to the findings.
The 2010 LSSSE tabulated three categories of self-reported student data from 77 law schools in the United States and Canada - pertaining to the effectiveness of law schools in preparing students for a professional role, the motivations behind students' decision to attend law school and then performing well in law school, and the influence of non-academic factors on personal and professional growth of participants.
The perceived under-emphasis by law schools on preparing their students holistically for a career as a lawyer could tie in with recent allegations that these schools are failing to provide employment to a large section of their grads. Many unemployed law graduates have been venting their frustration and angst in blogosphere and the 2010 case of a blogger who went on self-professed hunger strike demanding reforms and greater transparency in US law schools received widespread attention.
The specter of unemployment is unlikely to vanish soon, for as the American Bar Association pointed out in a memo as early as end-2009, many members of the class of 2010 and 2011 may graduate without a job, and those who are lucky enough to find employment likely will collectively have lower salaries than their predecessors.
Even if one argues that the challenges over unemployment have more to do with the economy and less with the quality of legal education, at a time when the industry in the US is clearly facing an oversupply of skilled professionals, the LSSSE report could provide useful information to schools about how to devise and encourage student participation in effective educational activities that create differentiation and hence, enhance their professional prospects in the long run.