Ed. Note: This column originally appears on Above the Law.
Earlier this week, a headline on the Wall Street Journal Law Blog blared: "Study: Law School’s Practice-Ready Program Produced Better Grads." "Better" is an interesting word choice there, but it's a word that law schools need you to believe. With so few people applying to law school, deans need prospective law students to believe that schools are doing something different, something better, to make entry level law grads more competitive in the hiring market.
Except that's not really what so-called "practice-ready" programs do, at least it's not what the study cited by the WSJ says they do. The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver did a study based on 69 graduates from the University of New Hampshire's Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program. They found that graduates from that "practice-ready" program outperformed other lawyers who had been admitted in New Hampshire on a standardized client-interview assessment form.
For those playing along at home, let me bullet point all of the caveats to this study you should have noticed in that last paragraph:
- University of New Hampshire "honors" program.
- Versus just anybody admitted in New Hampshire.
- According to a "how would you rate your waitress" survey.
With that in mind, here are the results the WSJ summarized:
Participation in the nine-and-a-half year old program—not scores on the Law School Placement Exam or class rank—was the only predictor of student performance on the standardized client interview…
The study compared the standardized client-interview assessments of 123 lawyers who didn’t graduate from the program with the assessments of 69 of the honors students. Daniel Webster scholars scored an average of 3.76 out of 5, compared with an average of 3.11 for the lawyers.
“This difference is large and statistically significant,” wrote co-authors Alli Gerkman and Elena Harman.
The WSJ headline? "Study: Law School’s Practice-Ready Program Produced Better Grads."
Practice-ready programs are a nightmare dressed like a daydream. They sound good. They should work. There is even some evidence, like this study (IAALS does great work) that shows that they do serve some purpose. But there is no evidence that participating in a practice-ready curriculum helps you get a job where you can show off all of your practice-ready skills. There is certainly no evidence that practice-ready programs help you get a job over the guy who didn't do a practice-ready program at his MORE PRESTIGIOUS LAW SCHOOL.
So far, employers are not buying the benefit of practice-ready programs when it comes to their hiring decisions. And if employers aren't buying it, there's no reason for prospective law students to pay for it. Employers might bitch and moan about how they wish their new recruits could "hit the ground running." But when it comes time to hire people? They go to the same schools and pick the same people from the tops of their classes.
And you know what the real bitch of it is? The day — the glorious future day — when the prestige whore Goddess keels over from syphilis and employers actually give a hiring advantage to "better grads" from practice-ready programs over traditionally educated grads from old-guard Ivy League programs is the day that Harvard and Yale and the rest of the T-14 start offering "practice-ready" curriculum.
The problem right now is that going to law school "works out" if you go to a top school. It works out reasonably well if you go to school for free. And it's a goddamn disaster if you spend a lot of money on any program that can't get you the kind of job you need to pay it off.
The practice-ready debate isn't trying to address the problem that law grads are having. It's trying to address the problem that law schools are having attracting fresh meat.