First Impressions

From The Practice January/February 2020
How employers weigh clinical legal experiences—and remember their own

One of the primary functions of any law school clinic is to provide law students with practical experience doing legal work. Law clinics are intended to help cultivate “practice ready” lawyers. How closely does intention align with impact? To what extent do lawyers attribute their own practice readiness to their clinical experience? To what extent do legal employers factor such experience into their hiring decisions? To help answer these questions, The Practice sat down with two accomplished lawyers from different practice settings to get their perspectives.

How do legal employers—the gatekeepers of legal careers—value clinical experience?

Carol Rose, currently the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts (ACLUM), has had a career full of twists and turns. Before attending Harvard Law School, Rose was a journalist with an international focus that brought her all across the globe, including stops in England, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. After law school, Rose did not go to the nonprofit sector straight away, which she notes can be especially competitive and difficult to break into for young attorneys. “I didn’t get a job at the ACLU right out of Harvard Law School, and I had pretty good credentials,” she laughs. Instead, she clerked for U.S. District Court judge Patti Saris for a year and then entered private practice specializing in media law and first amendment law at Hill & Barlow for a number of years before moving to the ACLUM. Before all that, however, she began practicing in her law school’s clinics.

Derek Davis has followed a very different career path—one with distinct twists and turns of its own. After graduating from the Boston University School of Law, Davis spent more than 20 years in private practice doing corporate work at major firms like Foley Hoag, Nutter McClennen & Fish, and Greenberg Traurig. Now, after serving for several years as the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, Davis has moved on to become the general counsel of The City University of New York. Like Rose, however, Davis’s first real foray into the actual practice of law was at a Boston University law clinic.

In this article, we explore from two angles the connection between clinical legal experience and the practice readiness of lawyers who undertake that experience. First we ask: How do lawyers value their own clinical experience insofar as it prepared them for their subsequent legal careers? Then we flip the question and ask: How do legal employers—the gatekeepers of legal careers—value clinical experience insofar as it serves as an indicator of a worthwhile addition to their legal team? Throughout their legal careers, Rose and Davis have participated in clinics, experienced firsthand the transferability of those clinical skills and experiences to their first jobs out of law school, and risen to positions along their respective career paths where they are making hiring decisions that force them to weigh the value of clinical experience as employers.

By the numbers: Retrospective appraisals of the law clinic experience

One question that law schools, bar associations, and legal employers alike must think about is how well does clinical experience prepare law students to become legal practitioners? In this respect, available empirical research appears to largely support their worth—though, of course, the devil is always in the details. Between 2010 and 2012, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) conducted two major surveys exploring how lawyers perceived the impact of experiential components of the law school curriculum—such as legal clinics, externships, and skills courses—on their practice and careers. The first survey, published in 2011, gathered responses from 930 law firm associates. While only 30 percent of respondents participated in legal clinics at law school, the majority (63.1 percent) of those who did reported that the experience was “very useful” in preparing them to practice law (a rating of 4 on a 4-point scale). Legal clinics had the highest average usefulness rating of any experiential training type (3.4), tied with externships/field placements (3.4) and ahead of skills courses (3.1) and pro bono work (2.2). Interestingly, those respondents working in litigation at the time of the survey found, on average, legal clinics to be most useful of all (with externships/field placements a close second), while those in transactional practices found externships/field placements to be most useful (with clinics a close second).

How well does clinical experience prepare law students to become legal practitioners?

The second NALP survey, published in 2012, focused on government and nonprofit lawyers, collecting 1,212 responses from people working in civil legal services, state attorney generals’ offices, and policy and advocacy roles, to name just a few. In the government/nonprofit survey, more than half (55.5 percent) participated in legal clinics. Of those who reported clinical experience in law school, about half (50.4 percent) reported that their participation lasted two or more semesters and a vast majority (83.2 percent) rated the experience as “very useful” in preparing them to practice law. Of all experiential learning opportunities, legal clinics had the highest average usefulness rating (3.8) over externships/field placements (3.6), skills courses (3.3), and pro bono work (3.2). When broken up between respondents in regulatory practice settings and those in litigation, legal clinics still remained atop the average usefulness ratings, but slightly higher among litigators than regulators. Notably, legal clinics scored slightly lower (3.3) in “General Usefulness of Learning Experience in Obtaining First Job in Public Interest or Government Setting,” below externships/field placements (3.6) and above pro bono work (2.9) and skills courses (2.4).

Data from the American Bar Foundation’s After the JD (AJD) project, a longitudinal study of lawyer careers using a cohort of almost 5,000 individual lawyers and covering a span of roughly a decade, tells a similar story. In “The Clinic Effect,” Rebecca Sandefur and Jeffrey Selbin use AJD data to explore the effectiveness of law clinics as institutions of early professional development for law students. “In particular,” the authors write, “we explore what the data have to say about the relationship between clinical education and the skills and civic dimensions of lawyering.” Among the various experiences respondents could rate based on how helpful they were in preparing them for practice—including clinical courses/training, legal writing training, legal employment, internships, and pro bono work, among others—clinical experience was rated as “helpful” to “extremely helpful” by 62 percent of those rating it, topped only by legal employment. Looking at the schools of these respondents, Sandefur and Selbin found that this figure was fairly consistent across each grouping—top 10, top 11–20, top 21–100, tier 3, and tier 4—with the majority of each group rating clinical experience as at least “helpful” (ranging from 58 to 67 percent).

A connection between clinical experience and public service was another finding from the AJD data that aligns with the NALP survey results. Sandefur and Selbin found that “early-career lawyers who reported receiving helpful clinical training were more likely to be working in public service employment than those who did not receive helpful clinical training.” Of course, “reported receiving helpful clinical training” allows for a degree of ambiguity as to possible explanations behind the data. The authors do go on to clarify, however, that “this relationship obtained for only certain lawyers, those who reported that they entered law for civic-minded reasons.” Beyond the general usefulness of clinical experience for future legal practitioners, these findings could inform discussion around more-acute issues in legal education, such as the discourse around public-interest drift. Might this connection suggest that clinical course work—perhaps even of a certain type or quantity—is an indicator of students who entered law school for “civic-minded reasons” sticking to a public-service-oriented career path? (For more on the topic, see John Bliss’s “Drifting Law Students.”) As Sandefur and Selbin caution, however, while the data is sufficient to note associations, it lacks the information necessary to prove any causal relationships between clinical experience and professional development.

Early steps in a larger career path: The employers’ clinical journeys

Rose’s and Davis’s own experiences both speak to the data in different ways. They each have become leaders within their sections of the bar—Rose heads the Massachusetts affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and Davis is now the general counsel of CUNY, one of the largest public university systems in the United States. While their careers have been different, both undertook clinical legal education along their respective paths to achieving great success in the legal profession. The similarities and differences in their own clinical experiences—and what they took away from them—are telling.

That kind of stuff is very real, and it’s what I think of when I think of real-world experiences from clinical legal education.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts

As Rose describes it, her law clinic experiences at Harvard Law School not only helped her apply theory from the classroom but engrained in her the critical lawyering skills of listening to clients and understanding the (often multifaceted) problems they face. Her time working as a 2L with public housing complexes in Dorchester around issues of public health, specifically dealing with lead paint, still resonates with her to this day. “Initially, because we went in ready to deal with lead paint, we thought that the best thing to do would be to structure a lawsuit against the Boston Housing Authority,” says Rose. As she recalls, it took deep listening to uncover the broader picture of their clients’ concerns, which in turn led to a broader solution. Rose explains:

Upon spending time in the community and listening to the residents of the housing project, they were really smart and they said, “We’re really concerned that if you sue the Boston Housing Authority, they’ve been wanting to privatize these houses because they’re not these big, tall ones. They’re scary. And we’re afraid we’ll get evicted and they’ll use your lawsuit on the lead to privatize the housing project and we’ll be forced into high rises and that would be worse.” As one mom said to me, “The lead from a bullet that might hit my son in one of those places is scarier to me than the lead paint.”

What they were really concerned about was the growing amount of asthma, which probably was linked to the lead. And so, instead of suing, we negotiated a contract with one of the Boston medical centers for them to come in and do a mobile health clinic and asthma screenings for the kids at the playground. And so our legal hypothesis that we went in with, which was that we should litigate around a lead paint lawsuit, instead turned into more of a contract negotiation with the hospital to come and bring health care providers and to bring mobile health care into the community. That kind of stuff is very real, and it’s what I think of when I think of real-world experiences from clinical legal education.

Rose also spent a part of her law school career in a clinical internship with the International Human Rights Law Group in Sri Lanka. In fact, it was doing international human rights work, which aligned with her previous career experience as a journalist, that inspired Rose most to pursue a legal career improving social justice and civil rights in her own country—the United States. And while her path to the ACLUM was still a few steps away, her clinical internship offered experience she would draw on nearly a decade later when joining the ACLUM. “In impact civil rights litigation, which is central to the ACLU’s work, you’re trying to actually change the law so that fewer people will be impacted by the injustice in the first place,” says Rose. “And that’s where clinical legal education really comes in directly.”

For Davis, whose legal career in corporate law was largely not reflected in the clinical offerings during his time at law school, the connection between clinical experience and professional readiness is less straightforward. Davis, who would go on to become a partner in a number of firms, participated as a 3L in two semester of Boston University’s trial advocacy program—at the time, a clinical course that was overseen by faculty, litigators, and former district attorneys. “I did it because I thought I might want to be a litigator,” says Davis. Like Rose, the clinic taught Davis valuable lawyering skills that, to paraphrase Robert Kuehn (see “Surveying Clinical Education”), had less to do with thinking like a lawyer and more to do with doing like a lawyer. He explains:

What I liked most about that clinic was that it got me out of the classroom and into a court system. It forced you to learn how to interview people as a lawyer and ask the right questions. It taught you how to prepare a case. It taught you how to apply what you learned in civil procedure as well as—depending on the subject matter of the case—torts, criminal law, criminal procedure, and even constitutional law. You had to take evidence and follow procedure and all that. It was probably one of the most exciting and fun courses I took.

The catch, as Davis notes, is that these lawyering skills did not neatly translate into his early career as a law firm associate building a corporate practice. “What I discovered when I got hired was that you don’t litigate often in big firms,” he adds with a shrug. “Your role as an associate is more about discovery and deposition work. What they care about is your legal analysis skills and your understanding of the law, because you’re really the library’s assistant for the first three years of your career.” At the same, Davis stresses, he would do it over again. “While I wasn’t thinking back to my experiences in the trail advocacy clinic in a direct way as a corporate law associate,” Davis notes, “the fact that I had experiences translating classroom learning into practice before I started my first ‘real’ job, and the underlying sensibilities of what it meant to ‘be a lawyer’—and the awesome responsibilities that came with the role—were certainly embedded in who I was as a professional.”

Law clinic on the résumé: What does it tell the employer?

Later in his career, as a partner, Davis was the one doing the hiring. This time, it was Davis traveling to campuses, conducting interviews for law schools’ interview programs, and weighing law students’ experiences in search of the best hires. Davis notes that he often found clinical experience too broad and too specific to be an obvious indicator of a good fit in private practice. Of course, each law firm—and indeed, each individual lawyer—will weigh certain background experience differently. Every interview is trying to find lawyers for a specific firm, each with its own unique blend of talent and needs going all the way down to its individual offices and practices. In Davis’s view, clinical experience is helpful in the corporate context in that it provides law students with a glimpse into the subtleties of practicing law that you cannot get in a textbook—things like how to talk to clients or how to write a memo or brief. Most critically, he notes, “clinical experience shows me that potential hires have at least some understanding of what incredible responsibilities lawyers have, and what that means for how to approach clients, other lawyers, the public, and the justice system more generally.” On the other hand, these are broad lawyering skills, and law firms often need discrete skills from their associates including specific practice-area knowledge and financial literacy like being able to competently draft agreements, review pricing, and negotiate deals. At the time Davis was in law school, clinics often focused on other parts of the law. “Housing clinics, family law clinics—these are great clinics,” he says. “But corporate America, and the law firms handling their matters, don’t really do that work and would not think your time spent in those settings would necessarily translate into real assets for the firm.”

The catch is that the lawyering skills [I] learned in [my] clinic did not neatly translate into [my] early career as a law firm associate building a corporate practice.

Derek Davis, general counsel of The City University of New York

Davis does note that judicial clerkships are invaluable from a law-firm-hiring perspective. “Firms are looking for someone who understands procedure, who understands rules, who can draft motions,” he says. “And in clerkships you learn how to prepare motions for judges and how to draft briefs for judges. That’s real experience that law firms know is an asset from day one.” Often, he adds, firms will pay more and defer a job offer for one, even two years to allow prospective associates to pursue judicial clerkships—both examples of law firms taking concrete steps and even expenditures where they perceive value.

But, of course, clinical experience and judicial clerkships are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, Rose had both lines on her résumé before she began her first amendment practice at the law firm Hill & Barlow. While at the firm, she added a wealth of pro bono experience—including work with the ACLU. “I had my legal practice that paid the bills, and I had a robust pro bono practice that fed my soul,” she says concisely. Upon reflection, Rose thinks it was her diversity of experience that set her up to take the helm at the ACLUM. “And the fact that I’d done all this clinical work as well as all this pro bono work, the clerkship, and then private practice, it really prepared me to be able to walk into a leadership position and to the ACLU,” she adds.

Rose’s career path was multifaceted but with a clear-through line of public service. This consonance of motivation and action amid the zigs and zags informs how she hires new lawyers for the ACLUM to this day. “The more that somebody has shown a path of caring about civil rights or civil liberties or human rights or social justice, the better,” Rose says. “I want to look at what they’ve done to manifest that.” As she explains, while that can come from a myriad of experiences and narratives, clinical work goes a long way. She continues:

For a younger lawyer, it could be the classes they took, but definitely clinical experience is ranked huge—really highly—because that shows that they can actually do the craft of the law. And there’s an art and a craft to the law that’s beyond the theory, and you only learn the art and the craft of the law by applying it in the real world. Beyond that it tells me that this person has a path and that they care about this. If somebody comes to us and never did any clinical work and there’s nothing on their résumé that suggests that they have shown any interest in civil rights or civil liberties, well, they’re probably not going to be a real strong candidate. That’s why people who have clinical legal education experience are so attractive to groups like the ACLU.

At the same time, Rose acknowledges that it is rare for the ACLUM to hire lawyers straight out of law school. For litigators, she notes, new hires generally have about three to five years of experience, though she does have a number of recent graduates working on her team on one- and two-year fellowships.

Nevertheless, significant law clinic experience is very common at the ACLUM. And, as Rose emphasizes, her staff represents a wide variety of clinical experience. “There are people who come in who’ve done civil side, some more legal aid oriented; there are people who’ve come in who’ve done international; there are people who come in who’ve done domestic,” she lists off. “The ACLU’s agenda is so broad that we like our people to have a really broad experience, too.” (For more on the discrete skills associated with clinics, see “Surveying Clinical Education.”) That’s why Rose urges people to put their efforts toward the causes they are passionate about and to work in the areas of the law that appeal to their skills and goals. She offers the example of someone with a tax background, who may not fit the mold of what someone would think of as a lawyer dedicated to defending civil liberties. “But then again tax law can be incredibly important because it means somebody knows how to follow the money, which usually means they know how to follow the power,” Rose explains. “So when I interview someone and I see a tax law clinic or tax experience, I’m wondering what that’s about and if there is a passion there. After all, every aspect of the law can be used in the service of justice just as it can be used in the service of injustice.”

The new age of clinical experience

As we explore elsewhere in this issue of The Practice, the relatively recent diversification of law schools’ clinical offerings means that clinical experience is no longer synonymous with public-interest work. (For more, see “What’s in a Clinic?”) Davis and Rose both view this as a positive development.

“It’s great that we’re seeing more transactional clinics and simulations that really immerse law students in the contexts of business deals and corporate work,” says Davis. “Simulations really can go a long way in that respect. Students get to grapple with examples from the real world once they’ve been appropriately redacted and the privilege has been wiped away.” These may not sway law firms when it comes to hiring, he cautions, but he adds that these experiential opportunities would have better prepared him for his own legal career in corporate work if they were available when he was a student.

There’s an art and a craft to the law that’s beyond the theory, and you only learn the art and the craft of the law by applying it in the real world.

Carol Rose

Rose sees the expansion of clinical offerings as a chance for students to dig deeper in the areas they are passionate about. “For me, the proliferation of different types of legal clinical education is a good thing because it helps people apply the theory of the law that they’re learning in the textbooks and in the classroom discussion in a real-world context,” she says. “Again, that’s where the craft and the artistry of legal practice really come from, and it’s what makes people great lawyers and not just legal theorists.” As a bottom line, as long as clinics include diverse voices and require deep listening, they are going to benefit students. “It’s the learning to question how we do our practice, because it’s that ability to question the practice that makes you a really great practitioner when you come out,” Rose says in conclusion. “It’s not about juxtaposing application with the theory in the classroom, but rather the integration of those two that produce the most powerful and effective advocates.”