Implementation of the ABA’s New Experiential Training Requirement: More Whimper Than Bang

By: Robert Kuehn, Washington University School of Law


When the ABA adopted a new experiential training requirement in 2014, there was hope it would spur law schools to significantly change the way they prepared students for legal practice. The new six-credit requirement in ABA Standard 303(a)(3) was less than the fifteen credits proposed by some educators and did not include a mandate for a law clinic or externship experience. Nonetheless, the six credits were an improvement over the ABA’s previous “substantial instruction” in professional skills requirement.[1] But data from the initial implementation of the new experiential requirement suggest its effect has been more of a whimper than the bang some hoped for, with little evidence it has spurred legal education to enhance the ability of students to get hands-on training in professional skills.

            Law schools are required to report annually to the ABA on the number of seats simply “available” to students in law clinic and simulation courses and the number of field placement/externship positions actually “filled.”[2] Data from the first two years of the new six-credit requirement in 2019 and 2020 show no increase in the positions available to students in clinics or simulations and even a decrease in actual enrollment in field placement courses, when normalized to address fluctuations in nationwide law school enrollment. While some law schools have made important changes to their curriculum, the graph below indicates that, on average, schools have not reported positive changes in law clinic, field placement, or simulation data since the ABA’s adoption of the new experiential standard in 2014. The number of clinic seats available per J.D. student in 2014 was 0.27 and still only 0.28 in 2020; field placements decreased from 0.26 in 2014 to 0.24 in 2020; and seats available in simulations likewise decreased over the six-year period from 1.22 to 1.12 per student.


  Source: ABA 509 Required Disclosures at http://www.abarequireddisclosures.org/Disclosure509.aspx

            The New York Court of Appeals followed the ABA in 2015 with its own new skills competency standard for bar candidates, proclaiming that “the goal of ensuring effective, ethical and responsible legal services in New York requires more than what the new ABA Standards provide.”[3] Commentators on the proposed New York standard argued it simply mirrored the ABA’s requirement, with some additional paperwork, and would not improve the skills training of students. The graph below shows that the New York competency standard, indeed, does not appear to have spurred New York’s law schools to noticeably enhance their professional skills training of students or to provide more training than schools in states following only the ABA requirement. Although students at New York schools were offered more opportunities to enroll in simulation courses lacking the supervised experience of handling the complexities of real-life clients, opportunities to participate in a law clinic were unchanged and field placements decreased.


Source: ABA 509 Required Disclosures for 15 New York law schools

            Data from the recent Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education (CSALE) 2019-20 Survey of Applied Legal Education of 95% of law schools also show little measurable effect from the new experiential training standard.[4] Schools reported no increase in the median number of law clinic courses offered to their students since the prior 2016-17 survey and no increase in the percentage of students that graduate with a law clinic experience. Similarly, there was no reported increase in the percentage of students that graduate with an externship experience, with student demand for externship courses in 2019-20 up slightly from the last survey yet significantly less than externship demand in 2014 when the new standard was adopted. And, the percentage of schools requiring each J.D. student to participate in a law clinic or externship course as a condition of graduation only increased marginally from 20% in 2016-17 to 23% in the 2019-20 survey.

            Two thirds of schools in the CSALE survey did report making some changes to their curriculum in response to the ABA’s new experiential requirement, with almost half reporting the addition of a new law clinic, field placement, or simulation course(s), and one quarter of schools reporting increased slots available in an existing experiential course(s). A 2018 survey by Allison Korn and Laila Hlass also found that about two thirds of schools reported an expansion or enhancement of their course offerings in light of the ABA’s new experiential course requirement.[5]

            In both surveys, however, significant numbers of schools simply restructured existing courses to meet the experiential training definition, including merely relabeling parts of the first-year required legal writing course as “experiential” or offering a one-credit simulation component to a doctrinal course. Because the survey questions did not ask separately about law clinic and externship courses but grouped them with non-clinical simulation courses, the data do not reveal if legal education has increased live-client clinic or externship opportunities for students or simply adjusted to the new requirement in other ways. In the 2019-20 CSALE survey, there was a slight increase of approximately 5% in the reported percentage of students that participated in a law clinic or externship prior to graduation. But fewer than 20% of schools attributed any increase in clinic or externship demand to the new ABA requirement.

            To the extent the ABA’s new six-credit experiential requirement was intended to provide law students with more meaningful hands-on training in important professional skills, its own data do not show that intended result. In addition, surveys of schools on their implementation of the new training requirement do not show significant gains in skills training as a result of the new accreditation standard.

            It is time for the ABA to address these deficiencies by at a minimum requiring schools to report actual enrollments in law clinic and simulation courses so that the ABA can truly judge the effect of its requirement and prospective applicants to law schools will not continue to be potentially deceived by reports of ethereal “available” law clinic opportunities.[6]

            Yet students, and the clients they will soon represent in practice, deserve more than just enhanced reporting requirements. The ABA’s six-credit experiential requirement remains far below the skills training other professional schools require of their students.[7] Two recent studies on legal education have highlighted the need for greatly enhanced skills training, including mandatory clinical training prior to bar licensing.[8] The ABA should heed these calls for reform and revisit the proposals for fifteen-credits of experiential coursework and a mandatory, live-client clinical experience for all J.D. students.


[1] An ABA memorandum explained that “substantial instruction” equaled only one credit of lawyering skills instruction, which could be in a simulation course. Peter A. Joy, The Uneasy History of Experiential Education in U.S. Law Schools, 122 Dick. L. Rev. 551, 574 (2018), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3129111.

[2] Prior to 2017, the ABA also required schools to report the actual number of students enrolled in law clinic and simulation courses, not just seats available. However, the ABA determined that asking schools to report actual enrollment, when the accreditation standard only requires “substantial opportunities,” was unnecessarily burdensome and now only requires schools to report the number of clinic and simulation opportunities that are potentially available to students.

[3] New York Court of Appeals, New Skills Competency Requirement for Admission to the Bar (Dec. 16, 2015), at

http://www.courts.state.ny.us/ctapps/news/nottobar/nottobar121615.pdf; Task Force on Experiential Learning and Admission to the Bar: Report to Chief Judge Lippman and the New York Court of Appeals 3 (Nov. 2015), at http://ww2.nycourts.gov/sites/default/files/document/files/2018-05/Experiential-Learning-Admiss2Bar-Report122015.pdf.

[4] Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education, 2019-20 Survey of Applied Legal Education (2020), available at https://www.csale.org/#results.

[5] Allison Korn & Laila L. Hlass, Assessing the Experiential (R)Evolution, 65 Villanova L. Rev. 713, 731-33 (2020), available at https://digitalcommons.law.villanova.edu/vlr/vol65/iss4/1/.

[6] One school with enrollments of approximately 300 students per class claimed in its 2018 509 Required Disclosure to prospective applicants over 1,500 seats available to students in its law clinics. Another school with a class of 100 reported over 300 clinic positions available, yet only 50 students actually enrolled in those purported available positions.

[7] See Robert R. Kuehn, Pricing Clinical Legal Education, 92 Denv. U. L. Rev. 1, App.. A (2014) (documenting one-quarter to one-third required credits in skills training for other professional schools), available at. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2318042.

[8] Deborah Jones Merritt & Logan Cornett, Building a Better Bar 75-76 (2020), available at  https://iaals.du.edu/sites/default/files/documents/publications/building_a_better_bar.pdf; Joan W. Howarth & Judith Welch Wegner, Ringing Changes: Systems Thinking About Legal Licensing, 13 Fla. Int’l L. Rev. 383, 430-31 (2019), available at https://scholars.law.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2220&context=facpub.


2 Responses

  1. Then, how have law schools satisfied the requirement? Isn’t the ABA enforcing the rule?

    • My understanding is the distinction is that the rule itself doesn’t go far enough to encourage the kind of practical training that emerging lawyers will need. The rule (which was new just as I began clinical teaching) requires just 6 hours of experiential education, and it allows simulation courses to count toward those six hours. Instead of expanding opportunities for live practice (in field placements and clinics) under close supervision, many law schools instead added “simulation” components to existing courses. Law schools are satisfying the letter, but not the spirit, of the standard, and that’s a problem for students and the profession. We all predicted an expansion of opportunities for students to perform in role as attorneys, which has been identified as a critical component of legal education. However, that does not seem to have happened. Maybe Bob can chime in as I am kind of paraphrasing here, while he has the deeper empirical understanding of what has and has not changed.

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