Externships — A Bridge to Practice

I just returned from an excellent conference:  Externships 4 – A Bridge to Practice.  This was the fourth in a series of national conferences by and for law school externship program faculty.  The theme of this conference was “challenging faculty and administrators to consider the role of externships in the curriculum in light of the Carnegie Report and the general call for increased skills-based, experiential learning.”  Thanks to Susan McClellan, Director, Externship Program, Seattle University School of Law and Rosanna Peterson, Director of the Externship Program at Gonzaga University School of Law for organizing and hosting this event. 

I was struck by a couple of things that I thought were worth overcoming my fear of blogging to share: 

  • First, was the ways in which properly run externship programs provide just the opportunities to learn about, reflect upon, and practice the responsibilities of the legal profession that the Carnegie Report recommends.  It is important for externship faculty to share information and join the conversation about Educating Lawyers and Best Practices for Legal Education.    
  • Second, was the troubling fact that some externship faculty feel marginalized, not only by the Carnegie Report which barely mentions “externships” (although it does refer to “clinics”), but by their law schools and even their own Clinics.  Some faculty see themselves, the courses they teach, and programs they run as completely separate from clinical education.  I always considered myself Clinical Faculty, having taught in-house clinics, as well as skills courses, and now field placements.   I am interested in hearing from others.

In your view, are externships secondary to clinics (clinical education “lite”)?  Are in-house clinics threatened by less expensive externships?  Aren’t there some fundamental educational goals that can best be addressed in-house, and others that can best be addressed in externships?  Do we make it more difficult for law schools to implement the recommendations of Carnegie and Best Practices, by such divisions?

2 Responses

  1. I also want to thank the conference organizers for a diverse and challenging program, and for managing to get the sun to shine for 3 consecutive days in Seattle in February!

    I share Nancy’s concern about the perceived separation of externship teachers. One of the limitations of in house clinic work is that it almost inevitably involves a choice to limit the caseloads so that in a sense it is not fully reflective of real world practice even though the clients and problems are real. I see externships as an opportunity for students to extend what they learn in the in house clinic environment to the more robust real world demands of practice. I think we have been a little too comfortable with the assumption that if students learn the best lawyering through in house clinic experience they will automatically, at least easily, adapt to the other pressures and realiites when they get there.

    I also think that externships can serve an equally important value as a preliminary experience before the in house clinic–to expose students to the issues of professionalism so that they are better prepared to take advantage of what the in house clinics offer.

    I do sense that there is pressure from administrations and from within the ranks of externship teachers to expand without a clear articulation of goals and the place within the larger curriculum that could lead back to the days of larger scale relatively unsupervised placements that triggered the ABA to crack down through the accreditation standards. Externship programs will lose some of their cachet if they become clinical education on the cheap or a quick fix to the problems identified by Carnegie and Best Practices.

    I should also add that my perspective, like Nancy’s, is colored by the fact that I have taught in house clinics, externships, simulations, and traditional courses and I am concerned about the isolation and separation of externship teachers.

  2. I, too, have taught in all modes of legal education and think that all are important.

    What I am about to say is really directed to in-house clinical teachers. I hope that some are reading this…

    Simply this: we must not let there be in-fighting and competition between in house and external clinics. We all lose when we waste our energy trying to compete with teachers of another form of experiential learning. We are all in this together.

    It was about 14 years ago when my school decided to hire a full time externship director. Thankfully, we voted to give her faculty status. Since that time, the two of us have supported each other’s programs, and re-designed our program structure to cooperate better. We have similar standards, requirements, a common application process, and a common pre-requisite. For a while, she was our only faculty member teaching externships. Yet she was not isolated; she is a member of the clinical faculty. We simply refused to let anyone divide and conquer.

    When students come to talk to us, we are committed to making sure that each student gets to the program that meets her needs the best. I am proud that the vast majority of our students (over 80%) have taken at least one program; most have taken more than one. I agree with Bob — the sequence may vary, depending on the student and the program.

    Anyway, we all have WAY too much to do — reform legal education, change the world, etc., to permit tensions between our programs to sap away any energy. So, I challenge every in-house clinical teacher to reach out TODAY to any of your externship teachers who are on the fringe, off by himself, isolated. It must not be.

    Especially if your externships are “administered” rather than “taught” by a faculty member– we have to help those externship “administers” think of themselves as teachers, and to live and breathe the Best Practices for Clinical Legal Education.

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