Does Experiential Learning Improve JD Employment Outcomes?

Jason W. Yackee

University of Wisconsin Law School

Abstract:

This short paper provides an empirical examination of the link between law school experiential (or “skills”) learning opportunities and JD employment outcomes. The current “law school crisis” poses a number of serious challenges to the legal academy, and how law schools should respond is hotly debated. One common suggestion is that law schools should reform their curriculum to emphasize the development of practical skills through experiential learning, rather than emphasize what is described as the impractical, theory- and doctrine-heavy book learning of the traditional law school curriculum. Employers are said to be more likely to hire those with substantial skills training. This paper provides a simple empirical examination of that basic hypothesis. To summarize the paper’s key finding: there is no statistical relationship between law school opportunities for skills training and JD employment outcomes. In contrast, employment outcomes do seem to be strongly related to law school prestige.

Does Experiential Learning Improve JD Employment Outcomes? – Introduction

This short paper provides an empirical examination of the link between law school experiential learning opportunities and JD employment outcomes. The paper is motivated by the so-­?called “law school crisis” that has accompanied the bursting of the housing bubble and the ensuing Great Recession. As most readers of this paper know, the market for new lawyers collapsed during the recession. Applications to law schools initially rose, but have since fallen dramatically. Entry-­?level legal hiring remains sluggish, and law school applications seem poised to hit new record lows in the coming admissions cycle.

The situation poses a number of serious challenges to the legal academy, and how law schools should respond is hotly debated. One common suggestion is that law schools should reform their curriculum to emphasize the development of practical “skills” through “experiential learning” rather than what is described as the impractical, theory-and doctrine-­?heavy book learning of the traditional law school curriculum. (In this paper I use “skills learning” and “experiential learning” or “training” synonymously). The basic idea is that by increasing opportunities for skills learning, law schools will produce graduates who are closer to being “practice-­?ready” (another concept to emerge in the crisis-related
debates)2, and that law firms will be more likely to hire those graduates than they have been to hire graduates who pursued a traditional curriculum. Why would law firms be more willing to hire graduates with skills training? Because clients—who are said to increasingly refuse to pay for legal work performed by young associates—will recognize that young associates with robust skills training are able to provide sufficient value, even at the start of their careers, and will be willing to pay their hourly fees. As an example of this logic, take the following statement by Villanova’s law school:

Today’s lawyers often practice more than just law. They are business consultants. Problem solvers. Financial strategists. That’s why Villanova University School of Law is pushing the boundaries of traditional legal instruction and infusing vital business coursework and experiential learning opportunities into every student’s education. Whether students pursue corporate, criminal or public interest practice, Villanova prepares graduates to become the kind of lawyer the market demands. “Firms and institutions  want attorneys who can hit the ground running,” says John Y. Gotanda, the Arthur J. Kania Dean of Villanova University School of Law. “Our efforts are designed to provide students with the skills they need to practice on day one and throughout their careers.”

We can imagine a contrasting but nonetheless plausible story that would go something like this: law firms and their clients don’t actually take skills training into account when deciding whether to hire (or to pay for work by) young associates.4 Firms tend to rely overwhelmingly on simplifying heuristics when deciding where to interview (primarily, a law school’s national reputation; perhaps also geographic proximity to the firm) and who to hire (primarily law school GPA; perhaps also moot court or law review selection; probably the candidate’s poise in the interview).

 JD Employment

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