Legal Education

Educators and young lawyer take opposing sides at hearing over academic credit for paid externships

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The governing council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has approved six proposed changes to the law school accreditation standards for notice and comment.

But only one—a proposal to eliminate the current ban on students receiving academic credit for paid externships—drew any testimony at a public hearing Thursday.

Representatives from two legal education groups—the Society of American Law Teachers and the Clinical Legal Education Association—spoke out against the proposed change.

But Mathew Kerbis, immediate-past chair of the ABA Law Student Division, argued in favor of it.

Under the current standard, law students are barred from receiving both pay and credit for an externship or field placement. Under the proposed change, a law school could decide for itself whether a student should receive credit, but only if the school can demonstrate that it has maintained sufficient control over the experience to ensure that the requirements of the standards are being met.

In order to ensure that those requirements are being met, a law school granting credit where compensation is provided would also have to maintain separate records of the placement so accreditors can periodically evaluate the quality of the program.

The Law Student Division has lobbied hard for the proposed change, arguing that the current rule imposes a financial hardship on students. But many law professors oppose the proposal, contending that it would undermine the academic purposes of the placement.

Alexander W. Scherr, a professor and director of civil clinics at the University of Georgia School of Law, testifying on behalf of CLEA, said eliminating the current prohibition on paid externships would damage the quality and diversity of field placement programs.

“Permitting credit for a student to be an employee severely limits the control that the law school has over the educational experience,” he said. . Scherr also said permitting credit for paid externships would discourage many students from seeking public interest and public service placements.

“Teachers of experiential education speak with one voice about the damage to legal education that revocation [of the current ban] would work on the quality and range of field placements and other clinical courses,” he said.

Kim D. Chanbonpin, a professor and director of the lawyering skills program at the John Marshall Law School, speaking on behalf of SALT, said the organization continues to believe that allowing students to get paid for credited field placements will inevitably interfere with the educational purpose of the experience.

“Employers have different expectations than law teachers,” she said. “When students are on the payroll, the balance shifts from a focus on educational value to the student to one of economic value to the firm.”

Chanbonpin also said allowing pay for externships threatens access to justice. “Pay for externships will most likely come from law firms and corporate law offices, not from government and nonprofits. Students may gravitate towards the paid opportunities, thus undermining the training opportunities in the public service arena,” she said.

But Kerbis, speaking on behalf of the Law Student Division, said the proposed changes would increase experiential learning opportunities for students and comport with the recommendations of the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.

He also said that compensation has no bearing on the value of the education received, and that law students, facing difficult financial times, should have every opportunity they can to pay off what might be $100,000-plus in student loan debt.

“Law students who graduate with less debt will be more free to choose to enter public service careers because they won’t be so burdened with debt they need to take the highest-paying job they can find to alleviate it,” he said.

The council has received nearly four dozen written comments (PDF) on its six proposed changes in the standards, mostly about the credit-for-paid-externships proposal and most of them in opposition to any change in the current prohibition, section officials say.

The proposed changes will come back to the council for final consideration July 31. If approved, they will be reviewed by the House of Delegates at the ABA’s Annual Meeting in early August. The House can either concur with a change in the standards or refer it back to the council for reconsideration. But the council has the final word.

Updated July 16 to include link to written comments on proposed changes in the standards.

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