BARBRI’s “State of the Legal Field Survey” reports that “71 percent of 3L law students believe they possess sufficient practice skills.  In contrast, only 23 percent of practicing attorneys who work at companies that hire recent law school graduates believe recent law school graduates possess sufficient practice skills.”

This finding is puzzling and astounding.

It is puzzling because the report on the website doesn’t define the critical term, “sufficient practice skills.”  The survey includes a separate question about whether recent graduates are prepared to practice law “right now.”

According to the survey, 76 percent of 3L law students believe they are ready.  This is compared with 56 percent of the practicing attorneys who believe that, “in general, recent law school graduates are prepared to practice law.”  The figures for the 3L students for the two questions are very similar but the difference between the 23 and 56 percent figures for the attorneys is very puzzling.

It would be nice if the survey used a concrete operational definition of sufficient skills or practice-readiness.

Call me crazy, but I think of readiness in terms of being able to meet with a client or get a case file and handle the matter reasonably competently.  You know, without being spun in circles by one’s counterpart lawyers or messing up the cases too much.  Heck, it would be nice if they could competently produce and file the range of documents that lawyers prepare all the time.

Or let’s make it more personal.  Would you be confident that a recent law graduate would do a good job in handling a garden-variety legal case of yours?  Many of us teach at schools giving certificates or even LL.M. degrees in dispute resolution.  Would you trust recent graduates with those certifications to mediate or arbitrate a case of yours?

I think it’s telling that some corporate clients don’t want first- and second-year associates to work on their cases.  And these are our top-ranked graduates.  And, of course, this assumes that the graduates have jumped through all the hoops to get licensed, including passing an arduous bar exam.

Of course, many new graduates are supervised by experienced lawyers, which provides greater assurance of competent work.  But when we license lawyers, there is no requirement of supervision, and some new lawyers practice solo or with limited supervision.  So when we talk about “readiness,” we shouldn’t assume that graduates necessarily will be carefully supervised.

Part of the problem with the survey – and even the hypos in the preceding paragraph – is that it refers to the population of graduates in general, without recognizing that there is a range of skill and readiness within the population. In other words, some graduates are more competent than others.

So it would be better to estimate the proportion of recent graduates who are competent to practice by some valid standard.  (Ignore for the moment that probably no one is in a position to validly make such an assessment.)

My estimate would be near zero.

I assume that a small proportion of graduates would be minimally competent by my standards.  I’m thinking of some graduates who had extensive experience in law offices working as legal secretaries or paralegals.  Some graduates who had extensive experience working with legal matters and lawyers might also fit.  For example, someone who dealt with legal matters in business for a long time might be competent to practice business law.

Law schools routinely produce a stratum of graduates who are very competent to work as clerks for appellate judges.  But I don’t consider that as “legal practice.”

Despite the limits of the BARBRI survey, it suggests that US law schools produce a lot of graduates with illusions of competence.

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus and former director of the LLM Program in Dispute Resolution, at the University of Missouri, School of Law. He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an avid writer and contributor to Indisputably.org