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.


The Imperative and Power of Empirical Research

By Anahid Gharakhanian, Southwestern Law School

Allison Korn and Laila L. Hlass’s Assessing the Experiential (R)evolution, recently published in Villanova Law Review, should be celebrated as a much needed example of empirical investigation and analysis in legal education, specifically experiential education.  As aptly noted in the Experiential Education section of Building on Best Practices, “[l]egal education urgently needs empirical research on what methods will best promote deep learning that transfers to practice.” 

For many years, the experiential teaching community has had the benefit of the triennial CSALE Study, providing extensive data about the infrastructure of clinics and externships.  Now Korn & Hlass’s empirical work provides data about the proliferation of deans/directors of experiential education and growth in experiential curricula.  This data sets the stage for the important questions they raise about what law schools are doing about the following:  “working to uplift experiential programming as an essential part of the institution,” and “core to the law school curriculum”; “taking steps to identify, recruit, and support clinicians of color”; and ensuring security of position and voice in law school governance.  Korn & Hlass’s work, along with CSALE’s compilation of data since 2007 about applied legal education, serves as an essential foundation for posing these important questions and joins the clarion call of others that rigorous empirical research is critical in every aspect of our assessment and advancement of experiential education – the students’ learning, role of experiential curricula, and diversity of and equity for experiential faculty. 

I think about the critical importance of empirical work from the vantage point of externships or field placement courses, which provide a singularly unique bridge to practice and where so much of the student’s experience occurs outside of the classroom and the externship professor’s direct observation.  Anecdotally we know that these real world experiences are very important to a student’s professional development and practice readiness as a new attorney.  At the same time, the ABA and some in legal education have worried about the educational rigor outside of the law school setting.  What’s needed is exploration of our impressions and perceptions through rigorous empirical work.  In the world of externships, this translated into research questions that Carolyn Young Larmore, of Chapman University, Fowler School of Law, and I took up in a year-long, multi-school study, assessing students’ success at externships and factors contributing to it (involving three law schools in the same geographic area, with very different externship program designs, and widely different incoming credentials – with 2019 median LSATs of 153, 158, and 168).  The study yielded helpful information about the importance of externships to practice readiness.  Also, a notable finding of our study – related to access – was that students from all three surveyed schools achieved very similar levels of externship success (measured in terms of first-year practice readiness), regardless of widely different entering credentials as well as the academic component of the externship programs.  Similarly, the study found that law school GPA plays a very limited role in predicting externship success.  You can see how this data could be a powerful tool in creating access for law students, from many diverse academic backgrounds and schools, to career-shaping professional experiences while in law school and beyond.

As we tackle empirical questions in experiential education, it’s helpful to think about backward design.  In the case of the experiential programming that we offer to our students, a couple of recent national studies are enormously helpful: IAALS’s Foundations for Practice, a relatively recent national study about what foundations entry-level attorneys need to begin a successful legal career (which is the study that Carolyn and I used to define externship success in our own study – i.e., how close are externs by the end of their externship to first-year practice readiness); and the very recent study by IAALS and Professor Deborah Jones Merritt, Building a Better Bar: Capturing Minimum Competence, with one of its two objectives to “[d]evelop and promote understanding of the minimum competence needed to practice law” (and the second one to “[a]lign the bar exam with research-based concepts of minimum competence”). 

To borrow from IAALS and Professor Merritt, the key here is being guided by research-based concepts.  Whether assessing our students’ learning (as Carolyn and I tackled in our externship study), or raising questions about the role of experiential curricula, and diversity of and equity for experiential faculty – as Korn & Hlass have done – we need to engage in more empirical research and use this powerful tool to inform and advance the critical work of experiential education and educators.

Clinical Law Review seeks applications for five vacancies on Board of Editors

The Clinical Law Review seeks applications for five vacancies on the Board of Editors. The Board urges you to think about whether you would be interested, and to think about others whom you would encourage to apply. 

Members of the Board of Editors serve for a term of 6 years. The term of the new Board members will commence in January 2022. The primary role of the Board members is to edit articles for the Review. Because this is a peer-edited journal, the editing process is collaborative. Board members also serve as small group facilitators in the annual Clinical Law Review Workshop. There is at least one meeting per year of the Board, usually held at the annual Workshop. 

Applicants should submit (1) a C.V. and (2) a statement explaining their interest in the position and highlighting relevant aspects of their experience.  The Board seeks applications from people committed to the work of the Review and will prioritize applicants from underrepresented groups and applicants with diverse experiences in and approaches to clinical legal education. Applications must be received no later than January 31, 2021. Please e-mail them to CLRBoardApps2021@gmail.com.  

The committee to select new Board members is always co-chaired by two current Board members whose term is expiring. We (Jeff Selbin & Jennifer Koh) will be serving this year as the co-chairs of the Selection Committee. The other members of the committee will be designated by the three organizations that sponsor the Clinical Law Review — AALS, CLEA, and NYU — each of which will designate two committee members. 

We encourage you to contact us or other current or former Board members with any questions or for information about service on the Board. We and other Board members have found the experience to be very rewarding. 

The other current members of the Board are: Muneer Ahmad, Sameer Ashar, Susan Bennett, Warren Binford, Marty Guggenheim, Margaret Johnson, Jen Lee, and Alex Scherr. The current members whose terms are ending, along with ours, are: Muneer, Susan, and Warren. 

The current Editors-in-Chief are Phyllis Goldfarb, Randy Hertz, and Michael Pinard. 

Those who previously served on the Board are: Jane Aiken, Amna Akbar; Tony Alfieri, Wendy Bach; Bev Balos, Margaret Martin Barry, Ben Barton, Juliet Brodie, Angela Burton, Stacy Caplow, Bob Dinerstein, Jon Dubin, Cecelia Espenoza, Keith Findley, Gay Gellhorn, Michele Gilman, Carolyn Grose, Peter Toll Hoffman, Jonathan Hyman, Peter Joy, Minna Kotkin, Deborah Maranville, Bridget McCormack, Binny Miller, Kim O’Leary, Ascanio Piomelli, Mae Quinn, Paul Reingold, Brenda Smith, Jim Stark, Paul Tremblay, Nina Tarr, Kim Thomas, Rod Uphoff, and Leah Wortham. The Emeritus Editors-in-Chief are Richard Boswell, Isabelle Gunning, and Kate Kruse. The late Steve Ellmann was a founding Editor-in-Chief of the Review.

We look forward to hearing from you. — Jennifer Lee Koh & Jeff Selbin 

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