I have posted, and Larry Bodine has, too, about the dismal job a lot of law schools are doing in training their students to develop business. An interesting facet of this was mentioned in Susan Cartier Liebel's Building a Solo Practice blog yesterday -- a kind of useless indentured servitude.
Guest blogger Edward Weist dissects the ABA rules that severely restrict law students' ability to work for pay, for real clients, while in school. As Weist points out, however, law school clinical programs have a tremendous bias towards hands-on experience for pro bono clients. You can work, but you can't get paid for it.
On paper, this looks great. However, in practice it's something completely different. When I was in law school, I had to fulfill a 40-hour pro bono requirement that I thought was so absurd it was actually offensive. I still feel that way. Under the guise of teaching us that we had a moral duty to provide free legal advice (this while paying around $100,000 for law school, and incurring a massive debt that took years to repay) law students were rented out to any manner of nonprofit groups.
As the saying says, power corrupts, and absolute power is really pretty neat. Law schools have absolute power. The students are racking up debt. They need grades, jobs and recommendations and a diploma. The schools can make them do whatever they want. Pro bono work is terrific PR for the school, creates contact with alumni, is politically extremely correct -- but does nothing at all to help the students eventually become successful lawyers.
I did not want to do this. I didn't have any choice. So I took the least painful option, and found the most businesslike charity I could. This turned out to be a partner at a huge Philadelphia firm, Duane Morris, maybe, who was helping the Boy Scouts of New Jersey sell a parcel of prime land to developers. They instantly became the richest Boy Scout troop in the universe; I got my requirement fulfilled and some developer in New Jersey got to build a bunch of houses.
This exercise did not improve my character. It did not give me a sense of my obligation to help the downtrodden. Instead, it wasted a lot of my time, while providing some Penn Law alumni with free labor.
A modest proposal: it would have been much more helpful to me if I had been able to spend those 40 hours working for a real lawyer, in a real firm, with real clients. If I had had the chance to be exposed to law as a business, and get some sense of what actually made it work. Summer associate programs are beauty contests, basically. But a real, clinical hands-on experience, including client contact of some kind and business development exposure, would have changed the entire experience, and would have taught me a great deal about something I was, and am, passionate about.
Hell, I might still even be practicing law.