The Uneasy History of Experiential Education in U.S. Law Schools

33 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2018  

Peter A. Joy

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: February 23, 2018


This article explores the history of legal education, particularly the rise of experiential learning and its importance. In the early years of legal education in the United States, law schools devalued the development of practical skills in students, and many legal educators viewed practical experience in prospective faculty as a “taint.” This article begins with a brief history of these early years and how legal education subsequently evolved with greater involvement of the American Bar Association (ABA). With involvement of the ABA came a call for greater uniformity in legal education and guidelines to help law schools establish criteria for admissions and curricula. This article also discusses the influence of the ABA Standards, particularly Standard 302, in legal education. In the latter half of the 20th century, it became clear that a legal education without any professional development or practical training was deficient. A new ABA task force dedicated to “narrowing the gap” between practitioners and professors published the MacCrate Report, detailing the skills and values law students should develop before entering the profession. Lastly, although the ABA Standards have done a great deal in fixing these deficiencies, there is a great deal that law schools must do on their own. This article concludes by providing suggestions for how law schools can improve legal education in three ways: 1) by making essential lawyering skills and professional values part of the core curriculum and coordinating the teaching of these lawyering skills and values through a combination of simulation, clinic, and externship courses; 2) by providing every law student with a real-life practice experience in which each student is able to assume the role of a lawyer; and 3) by developing their curricula to respond to legal needs for today and the future.

Keywords: law school, legal education American Bar Association, experiential education, history of U.S. legal education

Suggested Citation

Joy, Peter A., The Uneasy History of Experiential Education in U.S. Law Schools (February 23, 2018). Dickinson Law Review (2018 Forthcoming); Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 18-02-04. Available at SSRN:

Peter A. Joy (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
313-935-6445 (Phone)

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