Without Experience: Deficiencies in Legal Education

By Corey S. Shdaimah
Author of Negotiating Justice: Progressive Lawyering, Low-Income Clients, and the Quest for Social Change

There has been much discussion on limitations and dangers of legal education, which was recently fanned by the Carnegie Foundation report on legal education, part of a multi-year research effort to examine preparation for a variety of professions and to offer both in-depth and comparative perspectives (see http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/programs/index.asp?key=30 for a description of the project and reports for the various professions). While the report praised legal education in some areas, it subjected it to resounding criticism in others.

One identified deficiency was a disconnect between legal education and practice, in contrast to other professions. Law is a professional degree; most students attend law school intending to practice. However, many lawyers end up feeling alienated, even as early as law school. Legal education does not provide an accurate or thoughtful model for practice; it teaches students to approach the world in a way that denies experience and values hierarchies and competition over compassion and respect. Such approaches do not promote healthy working relationships or encourage nuanced and participatory dialogue about important social problems. A more robust and reciprocal theory-practice relationship might balance the negative consequences of legal education.

Relatively new to the academy, law shares an academic inferiority complex with my own adopted discipline, social work. At a time when many academic disciplines are being challenged from within to contribute to public dialogue, such as the public sociology movement, law (and social work) should value the connection to practice and law schools should use that connection to inform professional education. This would enhance the academic contributions that law can make to public debate. It can also provide a better framework for students who become lawyers to make sense of their work. My research has shown that many lawyers seek this sense of connection and purpose throughout the course of their career trajectory.

Clinical education and clinical scholarship significantly contribute toward bridging education and practice, but clinics remain rarefied environments in which the work environment is less stressful (at least for the students) than outside work environments. In most schools, clinical programs (and their faculty) are marginalized. I recently attended a symposium celebrating 35 years of the University of Maryland School of Law Clinical Program. Symposium participants suggested that theory-practice connections can be enhanced by integrating legal education in a variety of ways, including the discussion of clinic cases in non-clinic classes.

Theory-practice connections can be similarly enhanced by empirical research from diverse fields including anthropology, sociology, and political science and rigorous socio-legal scholarship. This would provide students with a range of perspectives and tools to frame their understanding not only of the case, but the context in which it arises and the meaning that it may have for various stakeholders, including litigants, lawyers, and society more generally. A range of disciplines might also encourage law students to ask “why” and “to whose benefit” instead of just trying to sift and sort. While these do not espouse any particular values, it would provide students and educators a framework for making better sense about the work that they do once they are in practice arenas and faced with day-to-day choices and dilemmas.

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