By Joyce E. Cutler
SAN FRANCISCO--New California lawyers should be required to complete 250 hours of practical skills training, perform 50 hours of voluntary legal service, and take 10 additional hours of continuing legal education as a condition of licensure, a state bar task committee recommended in a Feb. 12 report.
The California State Bar Board of Trustees Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform last year was asked to examine whether the bar should develop a regulatory requirement for a pre-admission practical skills training program and, if so, to propose such a program for the state supreme court's approval. See 28 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 255.
“Most new lawyers face a gap in practice-readiness between completion of law school and the beginning of law practice. To maintain and elevate standards of competence, we believe that, as a profession, we must act to close this gap and that we must join with the legal academy to do so,” the task force concluded.
The 21-member panel's recommendations will provide a regulatory framework foundation “for the organic evolution and growth” of the practical skills system, the report states.
“We do not delude ourselves that it is possible to bring about a system of training in which new lawyers would somehow emerge from law school fully formed and in possession of all the judgment and maturity that we know comes only from experience,” the task force said.
“What we do expect, however, is that new lawyers enter the profession oriented to the actual experience of practice and the values of ethics and professionalism, so that when they begin to absorb that experience as practicing lawyers, they all have a proper foundation for growth,” it added.
The task force will meet March 4 to vote on final adoption of the report. The next step will be to send the document to the state bar's Board of Governors for its meeting March 6-7. The draft proposal will be released to the public for a 60-day comment period. Comments then likely will be reviewed at the board's May meeting, according to State Bar Executive Director Joseph L. Dunn.
“I suspect that the board will assign the recommendations to staff to develop an implementation plan for the recommendations, in essence develop the details. That will not be a short process. It will take time,” Dunn told BNA.
Dunn said that students already in law school would probably not be subjected to any changes that may be coming as a result of the task force recommendations. “While I can't predict with absolute certainty, I do not believe that if all goes well along this process, that any current law students, even first-year law students, would be impacted,” he said.
The likely first year of implementation will be 2014, Dunn said Feb. 19.
The bar's initiative follows last year's decision of the New York court system to require New York bar applicants to complete 50 hours of pro bono service as a condition of admission. See 28 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 305; 28 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 608.
“As Bob Dylan sang, 'you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,’” the California report states. “Testimony before the Task Force on changes in the legal profession confirmed that the winds of change in the law are not only blowing, but blowing hard.”
Most U.S. law schools emphasize teaching students the art of “thinking like a lawyer,” the panel said. Schools gradually have incorporated clinical experience and practical skills training into their core curriculum.
The drive for practical skills comes in a changing landscape “where, due to the economic climate and client demands for trained and sophisticated practitioners fresh out of law school, fewer and fewer opportunities are available for new lawyers to gain structured practical skills training early in their careers,” the report states.
Many new lawyers are entering the profession as solo practitioners, “without the solid practical skills foundation necessary to represent clients in a competent manner and with nowhere to turn to build that foundation,” the task force noted.
Dunn said commenters gave “almost unanimous support of the recommendations in concept but we suspect there will be great debate about the implementation.”
Under the proposals, in-classroom practical skills training must be completed before admission to the California bar. Credit toward the hours would be available for “in-the-field” experience under the supervision and guidance of a licensed practitioner or judicial officer.
Before or after admission, new lawyers would be required to fulfill a 50-hour pro bono or “low bono” service requirement. Nonprofits expressed concerns that they would be swamped with third-year law students and might not have enough staff to supervise them, Dunn said, “so the definition of the pro bono has to go beyond nonprofit legal services organizations.”
The mandatory continuing legal education requirement, which would be added to the existing CLE required for all active members, would specifically focus on practical skills training. Credit toward these hours would be available for participation in mentoring programs.
After conducting a series of hearings, the task force said it can “now answer the charge given to us in the affirmative: In our view, a new set of practical skills requirements focusing on competency and professionalism should be adopted in California in order to better prepare new lawyers for successful transition into law practice, and many of these new requirements ought to take effect pre-admission, prior to the granting of a law license.”
The task force draft proposal is available on the bar's website, http://board.calbar.ca.gov/docs/agendaItem/Public/agendaitem1000010279.pdf.
The ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct is a joint publication of the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility and Bloomberg BNA.
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