Jenner & Block LLP says this will help students get a job with them.
So does Schopf & Weiss LLP.
The Cook County public defender’s office says it helps, as does Cabrini Green Legal Aid.
Northwestern University School of Law thinks it’s important enough to spend $8 million on annually.
Last year, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law spent $3.5 million on it.
Students at all six Chicago law schools say it helped them find jobs. And in August, the American Bar Association created a new requirement that ensures even more students will be a part of it.
Yes, everyone agrees — law school clinical experience matters.
The only question is: How much?
Ain’t nothing like the real thing. So said R&B hitmakers Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
In legal education, the closest thing to the real thing — a job — is a clinic.
“They are the gold standard in experiential learning,” said Loyola University Chicago School of Law clinical professor Bruce A. Boyer.
“Experiential learning” is among the most popular buzzwords in legal education today, marching hand-in-hand with its close cousin “practice-ready.”
The former is intended to create the latter. That’s the idea, anyway.
Contained in “experiential learning” are three teaching modules: field placements (externships and internships); simulations (doctrinal courses which present students with a fact pattern they must solve); and clinics.
These clinics are nothing new. The University of Chicago Law School launched its clinical program in the late 1950s. They became more prevalent in 1968 with a series of grants from the Ford Foundation. Among the automaker’s funded clinics was Northwestern’s, established in 1968 by Gary S. Laser.
“I realized early on, as did many others … that one of its most important values was educating students to make them more practice-ready,” said Laser, now at IIT Chicago-Kent.
By 1980, five years after Laser joined IIT Chicago-Kent to launch its clinical program, five of Chicago’s six law schools had clinics, as did Southern Illinois University School of Law. By the mid-1990s, all nine Illinois schools did.
Most of those early clinics focused on pro bono litigation, both civil and criminal, for the poor. In the 1990s, clinical offerings increased and broadened.
The John Marshall Law School added clinics in fair housing and patent law in 1993 and 1994. DePaul University College of Law created its asylum and immigration clinic in 1996. SIU’s domestic violence clinic opened in 1998.
Ten years later, the recession — namely, a plunge in the legal job market — brought the importance of clinical education into new light.
According to the National Association for Law Placement, the percentage of law school graduates with full-time legal employment dropped every year from 2007 — then at a six-year peak of 76.9 percent — to 2011, when it hit bottom at 65.4 percent.
Meanwhile, clients were spending less on legal services.
“They only called when it was a burning issue,” said Jill P. O’Brien, a partner at labor law firm Laner, Muchin Ltd. “Our firm practice is focusing on preventative. I think some clients in the really tough years of the economy thought that was a luxury.”
At the same time, clinical demand was increasing. A 2010-11 survey by the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education showed that students at 76 percent of the survey’s 163 responding schools nationwide demanded more clinics.
The increased focus on experiential learning was not caused strictly by the recession. Administrators at several Illinois schools said that the trend was heading that way already.
The financial crisis simply turned the screw.
“The recession highlighted that being smart isn’t good enough to thrive in today’s legal economy,” said Harold J. Krent, dean of IIT Chicago-Kent.
The recession also highlighted new client needs, some of which are being addressed by clinical students.
In 2009, the University of Chicago established the Corporate Lab, since renamed the Kirkland & Ellis Corporate Lab, a transactional clinic for Fortune 500 companies. In 2012 and 2013, respectively, IIT Chicago-Kent and John Marshall established clinics that assist entrepreneurs with new business ventures.
Among those helped by John Marshall’s Business Enterprise Law Clinic was Robert Ashmore, a pedicab operator in Logan Square who rents his cabs to independent contractors.
A friend linked Ashmore to professor Michael D. Schlesinger’s clinic in 2012. Along with general legal advice and the creation of contractor-training documents, the clinic wrote Ashmore’s rental agreement between his company Roadie Cab and his pedicab drivers, a document that covers the entire scope of the business arrangement.
“It’s kind of like a bible, or our employee manual. But at the same time, it’s kind of different (because) it’s a legally binding document,” Ashmore said.
Two years after his work with the clinic, Ashmore remains in business.
“It was great to work with the students,” he said. “I took their input. It was a pleasure working with the professor and the program overall. They really helped me.”
One piece of the hiring puzzle
Anthony J. Aiello weighs clinical experience when making hiring decisions at Sidley, Austin LLP. He weighs a lot of other credentials, too.
“The overall qualifications are what we’re focused on,” said Aiello, a partner and firmwide hiring chair who works specifically with the Chicago office.
With 521 lawyers in Chicago, Sidley hires a host of associates out of law school every year. Aiello focuses on three resume bullets — academics, work experience and extracurricular activities. For potential employees, the ability to multi-task is crucial.
“Once you transition into the practice of law, you start to get demands from a number of different sources,” Aiello said. “And I think the folks that have shown an ability to be able to manage different responsibilities … tend to make an easier transition into life as a lawyer versus as a law student.”
What sorts of responsibilities? Law review, certainly. Participation in other journals. Moot court. And clinics.
“Clinics are yet another good example of folks who are branching out from the classroom and the academic world and trying to supplement that with some practical experience to different areas of law,” he said.
Aiello is one of several Big Law partners who praised law schools for molding students who are prepared to practice.
It was a theme echoed repeatedly among 45 people interviewed for this article. Many said that the resumes of current law graduates are more impressive than those from 10 years ago.
In fact, most Big Law firms responding to interview requests valued an applicant’s clinical experience.
At Sidley, it’s about the ability to multi-task. Baker & McKenzie LLP likes that clinics give students “transferable skills,” a notion echoed by Schiff, Hardin LLP’s professional development partner Lisa A. Brown, who praised the “on-their-feet experience” that clinics provide.
For Charlotte L. Wager, Jenner’s chief talent officer and a partner with the firm for 15 years, clinical experience means building communication skills.
“When they are working in a clinic, we know that they’ve learned how to listen to different people and to ask questions and to develop relationships,” Wager said.
“Those listening and relationship development skills are critical to their ability to be successful as an associate and, ultimately, as a partner at a firm like Jenner.”
Each lawyer complimented clinical experience. But none said it was the firm’s key hiring factor.
Conventional wisdom says that clinics carry more weight at smaller firms. But that depends on the firm.
Of the six with fewer than 50 Chicago attorneys queried for this story, two no longer hire out of law school, and another three do so rarely.
Schopf & Weiss is one of the firms that does not. When hiring, the firm places a high value on prior legal experience.
“And when a candidate does not have that experience, in my view, the next best thing would be legal experience obtained during law school,” said managing partner Jason M. Rosenthal.
That can mean pro bono work, a part-time job at a law firm, an externship or a clinic.
Rosenthal knows the importance of clinics — in the 1990s, he was part of IIT Chicago-Kent’s now-defunct immigration clinic.
The great benefit, he said, was learning how to tell clients that they lost, which he did in an asylum case for a Pakistani immigrant whose arm had been amputated by an opposing political party.
“The ability to give clients bad news — or even advice that they don’t necessarily want to hear — is a critical aspect of practicing law, particularly litigation,” Rosenthal said. “Frankly, it’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
Laner, Muchin is one of the firms that rarely hires out of law school. The firm will consider clinical experience when hiring a young associate but only if it applies to their practice area. The same goes for the Cook County public defender’s office.
At Cabrini Green Legal Aid, the work of law students is crucial.
The organization uses about 300 volunteers per year to bolster the work of its 14 in-house attorneys. Half of the volunteers are law students.
That trend of 150 law student volunteers began in 2012 and has provided service to an additional 700 legal-aid clients per year, allowing the organization to serve about 6,500 clients annually.
But while CGLA does hire out of law school and values clinical experience, the organization does not depend on law schools to train its future employees.
Neither does Sidley.
“While I think it’s a great idea and a great concept that law schools are trying to expose law students to more practical experiences,” Aiello said, “I think from our perspective, we still rely on our ability to train our folks once they arrive and expose them to the types of matters and cases and transactions that we handle here.”
Robert Ashmore stands with three of his pedicabs in Logan Square in 2013. He sought guidance from The John Marshall Law School’s Business Enterprise Law Clinic, known as BELAW, to jump-start his business, Roadie Cab. The clinic links startups and growing companies to law students who provide pro bono business and transactional legal services. Photo courtesy of Casey Black photography.
Experience v. school prestige
Some law school administrators, though, don’t necessarily agree with the notion that employers want to train new lawyers.
DePaul professor and former law dean Gregory Mark’s view of the relationship between law schools and employers is simple.
“No one has ever said that law schools are not good at what we set out to do, which is to teach people how to think thoroughly and well about legal problems,” said Mark, DePaul’s law dean from 2011 to 2014. “And yet, they want everybody to be ‘practice-ready.’”
When the ABA created a six-hour experiential learning requirement in August, many Illinois deans and clinical faculty viewed it as a positive, though one that would affect their schools minimally since so many of their students already participate.
Every Illinois law school has added at least one clinic since 2009. John Marshall has added six, tripling its offering. Northern Illinois University College of Law has doubled its slate from two to four.
“Schools understood that if they only prepared (students) to think like a lawyer, write like a lawyer and talk like a lawyer, they might not be fully preparing their students to move up in the legal profession,” said IIT Chicago-Kent’s Krent.
“It became clear that young lawyers had to be equipped with diverse skills in order to weather the economic storm.”
But the economy created a law school catch-22.
Fewer jobs meant a greater emphasis on experiential learning, particularly on clinics — the only opportunity students have to be responsible for a case file and experience the specific challenges of their soon-to-be profession.
Yet a clinic typically demands a teacher-to-student ratio of about 8-to-1, much smaller than a doctrinal class. And that increases cost at a time when most law schools are searching for ways to trim budgets.
Cut costs and add clinics? As Mark said, “You can’t do both.”
That means schools must get creative. IIT Chicago-Kent did so in 1979 by adding fee-generating clinics to its pro bono clinics. The idea proved popular: Eight of the school’s 12 clinical professors use that model.
That system allows the school to expand clinical offerings without stretching its budget or trying to secure grants.
It also lets students gain not just the practical experience of legal work but the practical experience of making business decisions — whether or not a client is worth pursuing and accepting.
IIT Chicago-Kent’s clinical creativity includes two other initiatives. As of this spring, first-year students can take a clinical rotation, spending four weeks apiece rotating through three clinics.
And this fall, third-year students will be able to participate in Intensive Clinic in which they spend one semester exclusively in one clinic. The school likens it to a first-year associate position.
The frustration for law school administrators with regard to clinics is a sense that their efforts in prioritizing clinical education are for naught.
“The big firms, which made all this noise about young lawyers, they still basically stick to the same handful of schools that they’ve always hired from, and they are very status-oriented,” said Dean David N. Yellen of Loyola.
Indeed, most of the representatives of the nine Big Law firms interviewed for this story stressed academic achievement as a key factor in hiring, with school prestige an indicator of a student’s academic abilities.
Still, the degree to which a clinical experience can help a law student find employment may be negligible, at least according to “Does Experiential Learning Improve J.D. Employment Outcomes?” a research paper published in January by a University of Wisconsin Law School professor.
Measuring responses and data from nearly 100 law schools, Jason Webb Yackee concluded that “law schools might want to consider the lack of evidence that such (experiential) opportunities are likely to improve their graduates’ overall prospects of obtaining a quality job as a lawyer.”
Yellen’s take is equally reserved, if not quite as bleak.
“In a lot of ways, I wish that students were beating down the door for more clinical spots,” he said. “Some students really care about it. Some don’t. But I think that goes along with the idea that the employment market doesn’t always recognize the importance of it.”
Despite its imperfections, students shouldn’t reject clinics, either. If Pari Karim had, she might not have a career training mediators.
Getting the job
Know what you want. Know how to get it.
Regardless of the size or type of employer or even the preferred practice area, a law student in 2015 would be well served to adopt that as a personal motto.
She spent her first summer at IIT Chicago-Kent in the school’s mediation clinic, starting with 40 hours of training through the Center for Conflict Resolution. As a result, she could mediate small civil claim disputes, mostly at the Daley Center.
After the clinic concluded, she volunteered at the center. When she earned her J.D. in 2010, it hired her full time.
Today, Karim conducts the 40 hours of training, working with students now working in the clinic that launched her career.
“I think just the relationships and the networking that I was able to do through that — both the introduction through the clinic to the organization and the continued relationship that I maintained afterward — was essential,” she said.
One year after Karim graduated, Maria T. Pellegrini was in her first year at U. of C., which she selected over the law schools at UCLA and Georgetown because of its immigration clinic. She began participating there in the summer after her 1L year.
Pellegrini’s experience helped her land her job at Reed, Smith LLP as part of the insurance recovery group.
“I remember talking about how through my clinic job, I gained writing experience,” said Pellegrini, who also handles pro bono immigration work and received the school’s 2013 Edwin F. Mandel Award for Exceptional Contributions to Clinical Education at the Law School.
“I had client interactions. I learned how to be an advocate — how to present my client’s position persuasively. I also learned how to interact with judges and got more experience working within a legal system.”
Experiences like those of Karim and Pellegrini are why IIT Chicago-Kent is now offering clinical experiences in students’ first year.
“I think what our law school, and law schools in general, need to do is to demonstrate to students that they would be better served in having clinical experiences under their belt in the early stages of their law school career,” Laser said.
“Then, when they get jobs later on in law school, they’ll really be able to excel in them.”
Katherine Pine excelled.
She chose Northwestern because of its entrepreneurial law clinic, where she worked for a year. She graduates in May, then will start at Cooley LLP in Palo Alto, Calif., with its emerging companies business group.
Pine credits Northwestern’s reputation as the main reason for her employment. After that, it’s a split between grades and practical experience that clinics provide.
“I think it is critical in today’s market to be able to look at your employer and say, ‘If you hire me, I’m not going to embarrass you,’” Pine said.
“If you can say, ‘I know how to deal with clients. I know how to write e-mails to clients. You can hire me, and I’ll hit the ground running. I’ve worked under attorneys with real deadlines and real accountability.’ If I were an employer, I would really care about that.
“And in my experience, I think they do.”
Law school clinic coverage
Feb. 11, 2014: ABA’s task force on legal education on Illinois law school experiential learning initiatives
DePaul University College of Law
Feb. 7, 2014: DePaul’s new 3rd Year in Practice program
July 11, 2014: Interview with former DePaul law dean Gregory Mark
Oct. 24, 2014: Profile on DePaul’s Asylum & Immigration Clinic
IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law
Jan. 17, 2014: IIT Chicago-Kent’s new praxis program
Mar. 7, 2014: IIT Chicago-Kent’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic
Aug. 29, 2014: Profile on IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law
Nov. 21, 2014: IIT Chicago-Kent’s Practice & Professionalism class, part of the Praxis program
Apr. 3, 2015: IIT Chicago-Kent’s new Intensive Clinic
Loyola University Chicago School of Law
Mar. 21, 2014: Loyola’s Civitas ChildLaw Center
Northern Illinois University College of Law
Mar. 28, 2014: Profile on Northern Illinois University College of Law
Northwestern University School of Law
Feb. 14, 2014: Northwestern’s Entrepreneurship Law Center
May 9, 2014: Profile on Northwestern University School of Law
Southern Illinois University School of Law
Nov. 14, 2014: Profile on Southern Illinois University School of Law
The John Marshall Law School
Dec. 13, 2013: John Marshall’s BELAW program helps Logan Square businessman start pedicab operation
Feb. 28, 2014: Profile on The John Marshall Law School
University of Chicago Law School
Apr. 25, 2014: University of Chicago’s Corporate Lab
Mar. 6, 2015: Interview with U. of C. professor Craig Futterman of the police accountability clinic
Mar. 9, 2015: Kirkland & Ellis gives U. of C.’s Corporate Lab a $5.5 million donation
University of Illinois College of Law
May 23, 2014: How U. of I.’s Community Preservation Clinic prepares students for the job market