Clinical & Experiential Learning: A Must-Have for Law Schools

September 26, 2022

Clinical & Experiential Learning: A Must-Have for Law Schools

Much legal education focuses on the study of abstract doctrine. But recently law schools have begun to emphasize the importance of hands-on experience.

Group of law students working on a project.

Theory vs. Practice

One of the perennial dilemmas of legal education in the United States is the question of theory vs. practice. The study of law in universities isn’t the same as the practice of law in the real world, and the discrepancies between the two can leave new law school graduates highly trained in legal abstractions, but sorely lacking in everyday know-how.

Consider the following analogy. “Pretend you are boarding a plane and the pilot announces this is his first flight,” writes Professor of Law Christine E. Cerniglia, Director of Clinical and Experiential Education at Stetson Law. “Despite not having any flying time for the past three years, [the pilot] has studied the intricate mechanics of the aircraft and theory of flying. He graduated from a very notable school ranked as a premier aeronautical institute where the curriculum included fierce study into the physics of flight. He scored extremely high on parasitic and induced drags, Bernoulli’s Theorem regarding lift, weather factors causing stall, and a host of other intricate theories… Do you settle into your seat or quickly find the nearest exit?”

The Socratic Method

When people think about the law school classroom, they often think about the Socratic method. Think back to Philosophy 101. Chances are you probably read something by Plato. If you did, you’ll recall that Socrates was Plato’s teacher – widely acknowledged as the founder of the Western philosophical tradition in Athens in the the fifth century B.C.E.

Socrates was known not for lecturing, but for drawing answers out of his interlocutors through a series of pointed questions aimed at interrogating assumptions, recognizing contradictions, and revealing concealed truths.

This instructional method of questions and answers still flourishes today in law classrooms all across the country, where it’s referred to as the Socratic method. Professors call on students to summarize cases before the class and answer focused questions about facts, definitions, and the legal principles at work in order to get students thinking on their feet and speaking before an audience.

In the first year of law school, professors apply this method to introduce students to a broad range of foundational topics: civil procedure, torts, constitutional law, contracts, property, criminal law, and legal research and writing.

While this pedagogical approach is one of the cornerstones of American legal education, critics have noted it tends to leave students well-versed in theory, but underdeveloped in the practical skills they need for their future professional careers.

A Shift to Hands-On Learning

While experience-based learning has its roots in pedagogical philosophy dating back to the mid-twentieth century, it’s only recently – in the last decade – that law schools in the U.S. have begun to take it seriously – formally codifying requirements. 

In 2014, the American Bar Association passed a resolution requiring that all law students take 6 credits in experiential courses as part of their legal education (there was debate about requiring as many as 15 credits). 

These requirements are generally satisfied through clinics and externships.

Clinics and Externships: What Are They and What’s the Difference?

Externships place students in off-campus, legal environments where they observe and participate in the activities of their host organizations. These include state and federal courts, governmental agencies, and local corporations. Students routinely perform functions such as reviewing documents, conducting research, and writing memoranda of law. It’s a great opportunity to get a feel for the behind-the-scenes operations of an organization. 

Clinics involve similar arrangements with off-campus legal organizations, except students in clinical placements get the chance to actually practice law under the supervision of a licensed attorney. That means, in addition to the activities above, students get the chance to speak in open court, arguing motions and advocating during criminal hearings and proceedings, including jury trials. Off-campus clinic placements include legal aid organizations, local governments, the Office of the Public Defender, and the Office of the State Attorney.

Why focus on experiential learning?

  • It helps graduates get jobs. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the market for new legal jobs suddenly got tighter, employers began stressing the importance of practical experience for new law school graduates in order to minimize the amount of on-the-job training they’ll need. In the words of Larry Bridgesmith, a law professor and CEO and founder of a legal tech firm in Nashville, TN, “potential employers assume that law students will be taught to think like a lawyer. What they are aggressively looking for are ‘practice ready’ lawyers as they graduate from law school.”
  • It provides one-on-one mentoring and apprenticeship. Law school is notoriously stressful. Courses are intense, the material is complicated and abstract, and curved grading emphasizes competition between students. It’s often very difficult for people to get one-on-one time with their professors outside of office hours, and student assessment in large doctrinal courses is usually based on one or two very high-stakes assignments. Experiential learning can be an antidote to this stressful environment, providing students with an opportunity to work closely with experienced professionals and learn from their mistakes in a lower-stakes environment.
  • It engages students and cultivates their passion for what they do. For law students in general, but especially for students motivated by a desire to help people or pursue public interest work, three years of education in the finer points of legal theory can leave them feeling disconnected from the fields they wish to pursue. Field work helps students reconnect with their initial inspirations – reminding them why they entered law in the first place.

Getting the experience you need

At Stetson University College of Law, you’ll get the real world knowledge and training that comes from working with experts in the field. Stetson Law provides a robust selection of more than 300 clinic and externship opportunities annually – enough that we’re one of only a handful of law schools across the country that can guarantee every law student is able to participate in a clinic or externship before they graduate. 

“The clinic program is the ideal way to practice the skills you learn in the classroom and get feedback from practicing attorneys,” writes Lakeisha R. Simms, a practicing attorney and former student participant in Stetson’s Local Government Clinic. “It is also a great way to test whether you will enjoy a particular practice area.”

Opportunities range from clinics in veterans advocacy, child advocacy, and immigration law to externships in intellectual property law, military justice, and municipal and administrative law. If you’re interested in an experimental and clinical approach to your legal coursework, apply to Stetson University College of Law today!

Learn more about clinical and experiential learning on our “Real Cases” podcast

Our new podcast episode “Practicing to Practice” features an in-depth interview with Associate Professor Christine E. Cerniglia, Director of Clinical and Experiential Education at Stetson University College of Law. She discusses how Hurricane Katrina changed the trajectory of her own career, and how it led her to develop a course in disaster law, wherein she teaches students the ins and outs of legal aid and how to file FEMA appeals. This course is the only one of its kind in the country.

Check out this and other fascinating episodes of “Real Cases,” a legal podcast presented by Stetson University College of Law.


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Topics: Real Cases