In 2015, the New York Advisory Committee on the Uniform Bar Examination conducted a month-long study, examining whether the Uniform Bar Exam should be adopted in New York. Among a range of public suggestions came the question of whether the state should let the bar exam, wholly or partially, be replaced with opportunities for practical skills experience.
The Advisory Committee ultimately decided it would not serve as an acceptable alternative to the bar exam, but acknowledged the experiential learning issue was indeed ripe for review. It applied for a task force to study and make recommendations on whether the state should adopt a skills competency requirement for admission to the bar issue. The New York Court of Appeals granted this request.
This was a watershed moment for US legal education. The rite of passage to practise in many states, including New York, has always been law school, followed by the gruelling written bar exam. Critics derided this structure as a faulty measure of competence within the practice of law. Indeed, an influential report by the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, known as the “MacCrate Report” of 1992, recognised the need for new members to acquire the knowledge, skills and values necessary for effective, ethical and responsible practice.
“The lament of the practicing bar is a steady refrain: “They can’t draft a contract, they can’t write, they’ve never seen a summons. The professors have never been inside a courtroom. Law schools offer a traditional response: “We teach them how to think. We’re not trade schools. We’re centers of scholarship and learning, practice is best taught by practitioners,” the report notes.
More than 20 years have passed since the report and a call to bridge the gap between what the bar requires and what law schools produce has gained traction, one state bar association and one university at a time. The New York State Bar Association urged law schools to refine practice-ready graduates, redesigning curricula to be innovative and in tune with industry needs.
The soul-searching in New York came to a head in December 2015, when the state’s Court of Appeals Rule §520.18 adopted the Task Force’s recommendation for a separate skills competency and professional values requirement for admission to practice. New York was the first in the United States to do so.
All Juris Doctorate graduates applying to the New York bar must from now “demonstrate…the skills and values necessary to provide effective, ethical and responsible legal services in this State.”
With this, experiential learning finally got the official sanction it deserved. While rote memorization still forms the bulk of the bar exam, this new requirement is an opportunity for law school students to beef up their “lawyering skills”. As a tough job market awaits, prioritising the useful ‘how tos’ of daily practice will be more beneficial than years of exclusively theory-based study.
At Boston University’s School of Law (BU Law), LLM students can fulfill this new requirement via the LLM in American Law Program’s Practice Skills Track. Following this guided curriculum would satisfy Pathway 2 of the Competency Requirement, which demands the successful completion of “15 credit hours of practice-based experiential coursework designed to foster the development of professional competencies.” These credits can be satisfied through a variety of LLM classes, from Alternative Dispute Resolution to Negotiations, and Simulation Transaction: Start Ups.
Experiential learning at BU Law doesn’t just stop at the fulfillment of this new bar exam requirement. Instead, it is embedded in every step of education at its Back Bay campus, set in the heart of Boston.
To help LLM students develops skills needed by a successful practicing attorney, BU Law provides four skills-based courses for LLM students: Alternative Dispute Resolution, LLM Moot Court/Persuasive Advocacy, Professional Responsibility for International LLM, Transactional Contracts: Drafting and Analyzing Transactional Agreements under US Law (for foreign-trained LLM students).
The key to these courses is the highly interactive teaching methods employed by BU Law faculty. In the Alternative Dispute Resolution class, students use role-play to solve disputes and productively engage in conflict. The Moot Court course, on the other hand, gives students valuable experience in oral arguments, developing their speaking and presentation skills in a simulated court setting.
Skills gained here go beyond fulfilling bar exam requirements, but also act as a helpful stepping stone that serves them well throughout their future careers. Employers, public and private, attest to the success of BU Law’s experiential education.
Mika Reiner Mayer, partner at international law firm, Cooley LLP, says: “At Cooley, we give substantive work from day one. As a result, we look for candidates who can hit the ground running in our fast-paced environment – those who have strong academic and practical skills and a desire to work with some of the world’s most innovative companies. BU’s programs provide a great platform for training the type of well-rounded students we seek.”
In the long run, BU Law graduates remember their time in BU as the foundation that gave them an edge to become some of the finest lawyers in New York today.