Would apprenticeship make for better lawyers?

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Published on 3/5/07

It's always gratifying when one's opinions receive outside support.

A few months back I wrote in this column that law schools really don't teach the day-to-day aspects of being a lawyer -- interacting with clients and running a practice -- because such skills are seen as too "trade-oriented."

That viewpoint was echoed in a recent Wall Street Journal column by Cameron Stracher, publisher of the New York Law School Law Review. Stracher observed that law school students are "reading about the law rather than engaging in it," with the result that "when they graduate, young lawyers rarely know how to interview clients, advocate for their positions, negotiate a settlement or perform any number of other tasks that lawyers do every day."

What especially struck me in Stracher's column was the observation that, until our modern era, most lawyers learned their profession by apprenticing themselves to practicing lawyers, learning from them by watching and doing. It brought to mind the difference between the way lawyers and doctors are trained.

Doctors, of course, put in years of residency as part of their training. They work in hospitals and clinics, treat patients and observe other doctors as they go on their rounds. Most doctors begin their medical careers with a very good idea of what they will face.

Contrast that to many young lawyers' "apprenticeships" as law clerks in their second or third year of law school.

They may clerk at a small firm and spend time photocopying and doing routine office tasks. They may clerk at a large firm, where they do much the same kind of work plus have eight weeks filled with softball games, shrimp buffets and amusement park outings.

Then, of course, reality sets in once the young lawyer joins the firm, meaning that very few associates from any of the large law firms are satisfied.

The current business model of these firms "eats 'em up and spits 'em out." They grind away for eight years, and, if they don't make partner, they must leave to make way for the next group of young "unwashed" law school graduates.

I believe that the Canadian law-firm model for young lawyers is superior. Upon graduation from law school, prospective lawyers in Canada begin professional training with the law society of the province in which the student wishes to practice.

All provinces require completion of a bar admission course with licensing examinations and a period of practical training under the supervision of a qualified member of the law society, called articling or articles of clerkship. The articling phase is essentially a period of apprenticeship with a law firm, legal department, court or government department.

Most large Canadian law firms offer structured articling programs in which students rotate through the various areas of the firm. The length of time for completion of the bar admission course and articling varies from 12 to 18 months, depending on the province. Only then are young lawyers ready to practice -- either where they articled, or with some other firm or organization.

The Canadian model offers practical experience before the lawyer's career begins in earnest. U.S. law school professors may view articling as unnecessary. But then, they also don't view practice management education as important.

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