It seems indisputable to me that good clinics significantly enrich a student's law school experience. But that doesn't necessarily answer the question of how one ought to assess clinic value. Should we ask whether they make students more prepared for practice? More employable? Those are typical metrics - and while sometimes clinics do deliver on them, other times they don't. For example, a person who hopes to become a public defender is likely to be both better prepared and more employable. Public defenders don't have the money to do all the training of young lawyers and their work is very similar to clinic work in a number of respects. And the very choice to do a clinic has a critical signalling effect from the point of view of public interest employers.
It's less certain that a clinic will increase the odds of a person scoring a job at Skadden Arps. And once employed there, the clinic experience is less obviously certain to make a student more "practice ready." But that doesn't answer the question of whether the clinic adds value. Clinics can be a great way to learn legal ethics, client communication, negotiation, multitasking, self-awareness, cultural competence and a host of other skills that Skadden may not consider essential to its hiring decision. But even though Skadden may consider a 4.0 GPA the best evidence of practice-readiness, I think many law grads will have more successful careers - including at a shop like Skadden - having gained those skills honed in a clinic.
As Bob Kuehn has noted, the recent call by CLEA to mandate experiential education isn't a demand for major dollar investment by every law school. The requirement could be fulfilled in varying ways, at varying cost points - although many CLEA members would actively argue that clinics are a particularly good way to deliver experiential education. The call is an effort to make the case that the skills students learn in experiential settings are both essential to the mission of every institution calling itself a law school, and poorly provided for in non-experiential settings. Does that look to some people like special pleading for funding experiential education by a marginalized faculty community? Perhaps. But no more so than the special pleading by an empowered faculty community - the tenured faculty - embodied by Vic Fleischer's call to protect research faculty lines. Both groups are arguing for their conception of quality control which, it turns out, also results in jobs for faculty in their respective communities.
It's worth noting, however, that this debate really involves the two powerful non-market regulators of law school curricula: the ABA and (less obviously, but importantly) each school's tenured faculty. This disagreement over clinics and experiential education has the potential to play out as a battle between these regulators, with clinicians pushing the ABA to require experiential education even as some tenured faculty (and administrators) try to manage law school priorities in other directions.
And this entire debate is perhaps most troubling to folks - particularly some in the law school scam movement - who believe that all faculty (clinical and otherwise) are simply acting out of self-interest, rather than the educational and financial interests of their students. The sad reality is that, in many respects, law schools have themselves to blame for this credibility crisis.