The law school world is currently enthralled with the idea of "experiential education." The push for experiential education comes from bar associations, accrediting agencies, and especially from lobbying groups of a certain segment of the law professoriat.
I am a big supporter of what I call "practical education" in law schools, which I consider to be education that will prepare law students to be effective early in their careers in their chosen areas of practice. My idea of "practical education" overlaps with, but is not the same as experiential education. A student can have an "experiential" bonanza in The Clinic for the Protection of Left-Handed Ferrets and emerge with no practical skills at all. Indeed, much of what passes for experiential education is not oriented toward imparting practical skills, because it focuses on narrow ideological areas of interest to faculty but not to students who need to get a real job when they graduate.
About a year ago, I put a survey on my blog asking students for the reasons why they did or did not participate in clinics in law school. Although the uptake was somewhat meager with 153 responses, most of them were students who did participate in a clinic, and I think the results are telling. To the extent these responses are representative, it's clear that the main reasons for not participating in clinics are (1) lack of interest in clinical practice areas and (2) scheduling constraints. I don't know how much scheduling constraints can be helped in a clinic, given the nature of the class. The lack of interest in practical areas both can and will be fixed this summer, assuming the ABA acts (more below).
It is obvious from the responses that many students do not participate in clinics because the clinics do not practice in areas that are aligned with the students' goals in achieving practical experience. This is especially apparent when combined with the reasons given for participating in a clinic. The leading reason students did participate in a clinic was not interest in the practice areas but desire to learn practice skills.
I strongly believe that the current practice of designing law school clinics around faculty interests rather than around student needs is hampering law schools' ability to train effective lawyers. This is one of the reasons why students prefer externships to clinics (indeed, many of the comments to the survey said exactly that). It is also the reason why schools need to allow students to serve in externships in regular law firms and business. This may require students to be paid under the Department of Labor's interpretation of the FLSA. This, in turn, is why law students so desperately need the ABA to finalize approval of its proposal to allow paid externships for credit (which they currently do not allow).
Law schools that resist offering credit for paid externships in legitimate educational contexts should hear from students. The main barrier to giving students meaningful practical experience and lower debt levels will be the law schools' clinical faculty members and their shameful organization CLEA, who have fought the idea of paid externships tooth and nail. If your school does not move quickly to implement paid externships in regular law firms if they are authorized by the ABA this summer, you will know who is standing in the way of your receiving a more practical education with less debt on graduation.