I don't usually get involved in the minutiae of law school accreditation but there is a rather important decision being made by the American Bar Association at the end of this month and your voices are not being heard.
The American Bar Association Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has published a series of proposed changes to the rules for law schools. One of them is a change to "Interpretation 305-2" (current 305-3), a change that would repeal the current ban on law schools giving academic credit for field placements (i.e., externships) for which law students are paid. The current Interpretation prohibits your law school from giving you credit for paid work experience, no matter how practical the experience gained or how closely related to your proposed area of practice. The proposed change would lift this prohibition to allow law schools to decide whether to offer such credit.
I don't think I need to remind you that law school is expensive and that most students graduate with debt, often substantial debt. One of the best things a law student can do during law school is to work at a law firm to gain practical experience and defray some of the costs of tuition and living expenses. I have found that students' paid work experience often provides them with deep and valuable understanding in areas of the law that I teach, and often when a student has a truly interesting insight in one of my classes, it came from that student's paid law firm work. The opportunity to combine paid work and law school credit would be an ideal "bridge" to practice that would give students valuable contacts and experience in the real world while decreasing the cost of law school.
Unfortunately, a small but organized minority of law professors don't want you to be able to be paid for work and receive academic credit at the same time, and they are the ones being heard by the ABA. The Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) and the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), which are special interest groups that advocate for the interests of law school professors, are lobbying the ABA to try to stop it from allowing you to receive pay and credit for the same externship. CLEA is very experienced at this sort of lobbying, regularly pressuring the ABA to add requirements to accreditation that pile on more tuition cost for law school students. These groups are adding insult to injury by depriving law students of the opportunity to defray some of the cost they themselves have created by preventing students from taking paying jobs and simultaneously earning law school credit.
Why would some of your professors want to do this? Because they want shunt all law students into their in-house clinics and governmental and other non-profit externships over which they have more control, rather than more practical law firm jobs that deal with regular law practice. Many clinical professors preside over significant fiefdoms within law schools, often using students' tuition money to favor their own ideological goals. Law school clinics are among the most expensive education law schools provide on a per-student basis, and that expense is all too often paid with students' tuition dollars. In addition, these clinics and unpaid externships tend to focus on issues of interest to the clinical professors, rather than on the skills that students will need in their careers to serve paying clients. Such placements are right for some students, but not for all. Many students do not have the financial means to devote themselves to such pursuits, and would rather gain experience in for-profit law firms, increase their employment prospects, and defray their expenses at the same time.
Currently, law students are prohibited from pursuing this rather sensible transition into the world of law practice. Indeed, even if students were willing to work for free in law firms on regular law firm matters, there are few opportunities to do so. The law firms rightly fear that under the Fair Labor Standards Act they cannot allow law students to work without pay on matters for paying clients. But these are exactly the type of matters where students will gain the most valuable knowledge and skill for their careers, as their careers will primarily involve serving paying clients. As a result of the FLSA issues, many law firms would like to pay students to work on these matters, but the Interpretation prevents law schools from giving credit for such paid placements. This forces students to choose between piling up more tuition costs or working without credit and potentially sacrificing their grades in other courses.
It is important to note that the proposed change does not require law schools to give credit for anything. It simply would allow law schools to decide whether some paid externship opportunities warranted academic credit. The decision of whether a particular externship offered sufficient educational value for credit could still be made by the law school on a case-by-case basis. If a particular externship employer did not offer an adequate educational experience, the law school could simply terminate that externship. In my experience, law students are not shy about sharing negative experiences in employment, and I can guarantee that an externship that consisted of picking up the partner's dry cleaning would not last long.
The comments on the proposed change reflect interest group politics at their worst. A cohesive group of professors are lobbying the ABA to deprive law schools of the choice of whether to allow students to earn academic credit for paid work experience, and virtually no student voices are heard. Many, if not most, law school professors would favor allowing students to work for pay and receive academic credit at the same time. The problem is that such voices are not heard because they are drowned out by a small, organized, and self-interested group of professors who are the only ones who bother to comment on the proposed change. Thus, once again students may be deprived of the opportunity to make the educational choices that are best for their own personal goals and financial circumstances.
Whether a particular school should offer credit for paid externship opportunities is a matter on which reasonable minds can disagree. That is exactly why the faculties and administrators of law schools should be allowed to choose whether to offer credit, rather than retaining the ABA's blanket prohibition. The ABA Section is actually trying to do the right thing by changing its own Interpretation, but a vocal group of self-interested professors are standing in the way.
I encourage all interested law students and recent graduates to make their voices heard (whether you agree with me or not) by submitting a comment to email@example.com, even though the "deadline" for comment has passed. Dozens of professors have weighed in on the issue (all of them against the proposed change as far as I can tell), but only a few law students have submitted comments (all of them in favor as far as I can tell). Whether you favor the change or not, don't let special interest politics triumph over a genuine grassroots reform proposal. I have no particular stake in this decision one way or the other. I don't teach clinical classes and I don't supervise externships. I simply believe that law students have a great potential opportunity with the proposed change, and I would like to see them speak up for their interests.
If you would like to learn more about the issue, you can find it here from the ABA Journal.