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Changes announced for legal education

By: Denise M. Champagne//January 12, 2012

Changes announced for legal education

By: Denise M. Champagne//January 12, 2012

Jonathan Lippman
New rules to provide more flexibility and expanded clinical opportunities for law school students will go into effect statewide April 1.

The amendments to the educational requirements were announced Thursday by the Court of Appeals and the state Board of Law Examiners. They apply to graduates of American Bar Association-accredited law schools, educated in the U.S., who will sit for the New York state bar examination.

“The bottom line about all of this is the practice of law has changed and legal education is changing,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said. “These new rules are an effort to be more consistent with the necessity that we all recognize that clinical experience is so important to being a lawyer.”

Under the new guidelines, students will have an opportunity to take up to 30 hours of clinical education, instead of 20, and the credits may be applied toward the classroom credit hour requirement, provided certain other requirements are met.

“There has been concern expressed by the law schools and the profession in recent years that graduates are not as prepared as everyone thought they could be,” said John McAlary, executive director of the Board of Law Examiners. “The court agreed to relax these rules to allow more clinical education. These changes will strike more of a balance between clinical and doctrinal courses law school students have taken in school.”

He said the change is not mandatory and there are no minimum requirements.

“The court strikes a balance here without interfering with the academic freedoms of the law schools and leaves it to the law schools to determine how many of these credits might be best for their students,” McAlary said.

He noted most law schools offer opportunities for clinical experience, having students working with experienced attorneys and helping clients most in need of legal services in a number of situations such as drafting contracts, landlord-tenant issues, bankruptcies and foreclosure clinics — types of real-life experiences, all done under the close supervision of faculty.

“They can be placed with a legal aid society or the district attorney’s office or the attorney general’s office,” McAlary said. “There are a number of groups and agencies that work with law schools to provide externships for students. Nowadays, in most law schools, there are more opportunities than there were 12 years ago when these rules were last revised.”

McAlary said he had one or two externships when he went to law school more than 20 years ago.

“It allows you to get a little taste of what it’s like to be out there practicing law,” he said. “You’re working alongside and under the supervision of a practicing attorney. There’s only so much that can be done in the classroom. Allowing these students to get some hands-on training along with doctrinal training is striking a balance that just seems pretty evident that that’s going to assist an individual when they start practicing law.”

The need for expanded clinical experiences was also emphasized in an April report by the New York State Bar Association Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession and a September 2010 report by the NYSBA Special Committee to Study the Bar Examination and Other Means of Measuring Lawyer Competency, according to a board release.

To conform to ABA accreditation standards, the new rule increases the minimum number of credit hours required for graduation from 80 to 83. A minimum of 64 credits must be earned by attendance in regularly scheduled classroom courses at the law school. The previous state requirement was 60 hours.

McAlary said that is where the change to allow classroom credit for some clinical experience, under defined conditions, will count. The previous allowable 20 credits of clinical experience could not be applied to the classroom component.

Students will also now be required to take a course in professional responsibility. McAlary said that slightly exceeds the ABA standard, which requires students to get instruction in ethics and professional responsibility.

“That standard doesn’t go as far as to say it should be a course,” he said, noting most schools require some instruction, but the new rule says it needs to be at least two credit hours.

“That’s not necessarily to respond to any problems,” he said. “We believe that it is important that we have some minimal requirement in professionalism and ethics for any person looking to take the bar exam in New York state.”

In addition, former requirements mandating specified days and weeks of instruction have been replaced with more generalized program and academic calendar requirements. A law school’s calendar must consist of no fewer than 130 days over an eight-month period and the degree must be completed within 60 months and not less than 24 months.

McAlary said it allows more flexibility for part-time students, recognizing that law school is expensive and not everybody is in a position to attend full-time; some work to generate income to pay for their education.

“The board and the court are mindful of the access to legal education,” McAlary said. “It is hoped by realizing these, it may open up opportunities for people to attend law school who may not have been able to go.”

The changes to section 520.3 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law (22 NYCRR Part 520) are intended to reflect the realities of current legal education, provide greater flexibility and promote clinical legal education.
McAlary said there have been a lot of changes in the profession, technology and ABA standards since the last time the rules were updated in 1998.

He said the process of updating the rule began at least a year ago. It was something the board took a look at and decided to make some recommendations. They met and came up with a proposal that was forwarded to the deans of laws schools in the state, asking for comments.

Additional comments were received when the board later met with representatives from the law schools. Some revisions, mostly technical or having to do with language, were made before final recommendations were submitted to the Court of Appeals, which approved them Tuesday.

“We know that in order to meet the needs of legal education today, law schools and students have to have more flexibility in how they do their training,” Judge Lippman said.

“There is not only one way to do it. All of it is to help the law schools, help the legal profession and making sure that legal training is in tune with the times. This is about legal education but, while we’re being more flexible, incidentally, as a byproduct, we’re providing legal services to those who need it most, the most vulnerable in our society. It fits in very well with our efforts to help those who can’t help themselves,” he said.

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