California Studies Practical Skills Test As Preadmission Mandate for Law Grads

By Joyce E. Cutler  

SAN FRANCISCO--The California State Bar has indicated that as part of its reform efforts it will examine whether the bar should develop regulatory requirements for preadmission practical skills training for law students.

Bar trustees April 9 approved a 21-member task force that will explore:

• whether to require preadmission training;

• how much training should be required and how long applicants would have to spend as trainees;

• training content and how it would improve new lawyers' competence level; and

• whether to require a uniform practical skills curriculum or to permit a variety of skills training.

The study is part of a “Five-Year Strategic Plan” the bar released as part of a legislatively mandated reform process that reshaped the organization and directed its leaders to do a better job of protecting the public. See 27 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 673.

The plan indicates that the bar will also look at whether measures are needed to strengthen regulation of accredited and unaccredited law schools in California and to beef up the state's mandatory continuing legal education requirements.

Unexploited Opportunities.

Bar Executive Director Joseph L. Dunn said very few California law schools currently require an internship, externship, or participation in law clinics. Particularly among ABA-accredited schools, Dunn said, “the requirement for any such experience is almost not in existence even though most of them have robust opportunity for it.”

“This question is not new to legal academia,” said Dunn. “They've been paralyzed over the practical skills issues for years” because U.S. News & World Report does not include practical skills as part of the magazine's influential law school rankings, he told BNA.

An exception is University of California Irvine. Erwin Chemerinsky, UCI School of Law founding dean, said one advantage for the now three-year-old law school is being able to build a program from scratch.

“We require that all our students complete a clinical experience in order to graduate, where the students have to represent real clients under supervision,” Chemerinsky said April 23.

UCI has four clinics, and a fifth is scheduled for next year. “I think the primary purpose of clinical education is training the students to be better lawyers,” Chemerinsky told BNA.

Looking Outside California.

The bar's task force will gather information about practical skills training requirements in other states and countries.

The ABA and National Conference of Bar Examiners, in a report on admissions requirements, said three states--Indiana, New Jersey, and Ohio--require students to complete skills-based courses during law school, mostly on ethics.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia require skills training after graduation, including professionalism courses in Arizona and a five-month clerkship and preadmission session mandated in Delaware.

Dunn, a former state senator, said he has “been advocating for some time that California through the bar as its regulatory body needs to require some level of practical experience before issuing a license to practice law.” Dunn suggested the bar's Board of Trustees could require a full year of clinical or practical skills experience before a law school graduate would become eligible for a license to practice.

That requirement could raise issues with lawyers from outside California, he said. “Reciprocity is a huge issue and will continue to be a huge issue,” Dunn said.

The requirement could be fulfilled through classroom-based courses that focus on practical skills, such as writing actual pleadings, contracts, and interviewing clients, Dunn said. While schools already offer such experiences, “it's just now moving it over to a mandatory” requirement, he said.

What Currently Exists.

Loyola Law students have a 40-hour pro bono requirement and an 80-hour externship, said Jean Boylan, associate dean of clinical education and experiential learning.

“The only difference with this proposal was it would be mandating people doing an externship” Boylan said. She added that most students do that anyway “because they want it for resume value.”

UC Berkeley Law Professor Charles Weisselberg, who ran the law clinics at that school for years, said law schools in general are more focused on skills and practice.

“I don't think there's been ever been a time when more clinical opportunities are available to students in law school,” Weisselberg said. “Virtually every accredited law school offers opportunities for students to get training” and hands-on experience under the supervision of licensed attorneys and faculty, he said April 23.

Berkeley has three clinics, on the death penalty, human rights, and technology and public policy, along with the East Bay Community Law Center.

Bumpy Bar History.

The bar has had a sometimes-contentious past with lawmakers. The bar reform legislation (S.B. 163) enacted last fall codifies the legislature's declaration that protecting the public is the bar's paramount interest and highest priority. See 27 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 615.

The Governance in the Public Interest Task Force, which was created under legislation passed in January 2010 after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) vetoed the dues bill amid criticism of the bar (see 26 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 80), met over nine months to debate how to change the way the nation's largest bar can best protect the public in regulating and disciplining the state's lawyers.

“California through the bar as its regulatory body needs to require some level of practical experience before issuing a license to practice law.”
Joseph L. Dunn
Executive Director, California State Bar

And many bar members remember events of 15 years ago, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) vetoed the annual dues bill amid criticisms that the bar had become overly political, unresponsive to membership, and inefficient. It took two years for the bar to finally receive legislative authority to collect dues from attorneys. See 15 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 449.

Task Force Mission, Composition.

Bar President Jon Streeter, with Keker & Van Nest in San Francisco, will name the reform task force, which will include three academics, five current or former board members, three Committee of Bar Examiners members, two judges, two corporate counsel, three practicing lawyers, and two public members.

The panel will hold three public hearings on a preadmission requirement, including evaluating the costs versus benefits of such a mandate and how, once fully implemented, it would affect the costs and availability of legal services in California.

The task force then will focus on examining regulations that would require California accredited law schools to publish postgraduation employment data. The panel will also look into whether bar admission should be limited to graduates of ABA- or California-accredited law schools.

A final report is due Dec. 31, 2013.

Behind the Wheel.

Dunn drew an analogy as to whether practical skills make for better lawyers to the requirement for classroom and behind-the-wheel training for getting a driver's license.

“That's not a guarantee that the driver is going to be a perfect driver. But it gives heightened assurance that we did all that was reasonably expected,” he said.

“When it comes to issuing licenses to practice law, some argue that the state bar only does half the equation,” Dunn remarked. “So by establishing such a requirement, I believe the state bar will be saying to the people of California that we're giving a higher level assurance that the people who hold themselves out to represent you … actually have the skills set from the day they get their license.”

By Joyce E. Cutler  

The California State Bar's Five-Year Strategic Plan is available at

The ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct is a joint publication of the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility and Bloomberg BNA.

Copyright 2012, the American Bar Association and The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.