THE LAW SCHOOL QUANDARY

Law school deans are getting conflicting advice. Let’s sort it out.

“Provide more practical training” has become the latest mantra. At the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, Susan Hackett, a legal consultant and former general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, argued for a year of executive-style classes covering business topics and skills. Here’s a better suggestion: students seeking a business school education should attend business school.

Meanwhile, according to the National Law Journal, Peter Kalis, chairman of K&L Gates, said that some current law school criticism is misplaced: “I believe law schools should concentrate on the education of law students from the perspective of acculturating them in the rule of law. Law students should spend that time being immersed in and becoming familiar with common law subjects.” More fee simple, anyone?

Finally, a Northwestern University law professor and a first-year Kirkland & Ellis associate offered a dramatic solution to the shortage of attorneys. You probably didn’t know there was one. Although the U.S. already leads the world in lawyers per capita, the authors concluded that allowing colleges to offer undergraduate law programs would: 1) reduce law school tuition to zero (for such students); 2) produce more lawyers; 3) cause some attorneys to charge lower fees; and 4) assure broader access to legal services for lower- and middle-income Americans. While not prohibiting law schools from offering today’s $150,000 J.D. degree programs, the plan would put most law schools out of business.

Where to begin? One reason the United States has too many lawyers is that law school has long been a default solution for college students. But when youthful expectations clash with the harsh reality that most attorneys endure, career dissatisfaction results. Allowing poorly informed undergraduates to pursue a law degree right out of high school would be exponentially worse — for them and the profession. (Commenters to the on-line version of the article destroyed the authors’ cavalier comparison of their scheme to the UK system. If you’re wondering why The Wall Street Journal editorial board published such a flawed piece, you’re not alone.)

What do students think?

At the same time, today’s law students like the education they’re getting. According to the recently released 2011 Law School Survey of Student Engagement of 33,000 current students at 95 law schools in the U.S. and Canada, 83 percent of respondents said that their experience in law school was “good” or “excellent.” Eighty percent said they definitely or probably would attend the same law school if they could start over again. Maybe most of these students will join the ranks of unhappy scambloggers when they can’t get jobs to repay their loans, but for the moment they’re satisfied.

But the same study revealed that 40 percent of students felt that their legal education had so far contributed only some or very little to their acquisition of job- or work-related knowledge and skills. In other words, some like their law school experience, even if it’s not equipping them in a practical way for positions they hope to obtain.

A final point may resolve this apparent contradiction. When students seek their first law jobs, curriculum makes little difference. Candid big firm interviewers admit that, except insofar as a particular course might give a recruit something interesting to discuss in an interview, subject matter is irrelevant. In fact, dramatic curriculum innovation is underway at many schools and, however worthwhile it otherwise may be, affected students haven’t become more desirable to prospective employers:

“There’s no employer out there right now — not law firms, not the Department of Justice, not the ACLU — that are seeking out these graduates,” Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William Henderson observed at the AALS meeting. “These programs haven’t affected hiring patterns. It’s still all sorted out with credentials. It’s based on the brand of the law school.”

If the vast majority of students are happy with the law school experience and changing it won’t improve their job prospects, perhaps the legal academy and its critics should consider focusing attention elsewhere. Here’s an idea: Provide prospective law students better information about the real life that most lawyers lead. For too many of them, it comes as an unpleasant surprise. Forewarned is forearmed.

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4 thoughts on “THE LAW SCHOOL QUANDARY

  1. OK, so BigLaw is strongly biased to buy based on the law school brand, probably because their corporate clients share such bias. The history of marketing teaches us that brands are based on very powerful emotional factors that are not easily influenced in the short term.

    But if only 20-odd percent of graduates historically went to BigLaw, and that’s presumably dropping, wouldn’t it make sense for law schools to be more supportive of the private practice option for the statistically overwhelming percentage of lawyers, i.e., small firms and solo practice?

    SmallLaw lawyers don’t have the luxury of spending 5-6 years learning to practice law. Particularly those whose options proved narrower than they’d anticipated and find themselves solos less by choice than by the cold slap in the face delivered by the immediate need to make a living and service their law school debt.

    I doubt that many small business persons are particularly aware of law school brands other than a few of the obvious. I’d be shocked to learn that such brands were material criteria in their selection of a lawyer.

    Law schools should modify curriculum to include more business-of-law, including marketing and sales — not for BigLaw’s needs, but for the 80-odd percent of lawyers whose careers will be elsewhere. Those lawyers need to learn how to be relevant to potential clients’ circumstances so that prospects will have a reason to speak with them or pay any attention to them. (And, Steven, you know I’m a fan, but “go to business school” is not useful advice for someone who wants to be a lawyer; few can afford to go to law school and B-school.)

    There’s no way to accelerate experience, but relevance and context can hold the fort by conveying threshold credibility to newly-minted prospects among prospects while those lawyers go down the long experience-gaining path without benefit of BigLaw tutelage and endorsement.

    • My “go to business school” suggestion is meant to deter deans who think that law schools should cater to Biglaw’s stated desires for business-school-type curriculum and skills. For the reason you suggest, namely, that fewer than 15 percent of graduates ever work in big firms at all, adopting such a mission is a bad idea for the vast majority of law students. For more, see my two-part article, “A New Law School Mission” — at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/a-new-law-school-mission-part-ii/

      I certainly endorse your view that law schools should help equip students with skills that will help them earn a living in the practice of law. But I don’t think that requires revamping the entire curriculum. I’d also eliminate the third year altogether, but current state bar requirements make that impossible (and deans view it as a revenue stream).

  2. Prof. Harper,

    A great read, as always. Hope all is well with you!

    Although I agree McGinnis’ model is fundamentally flawed because it mistakenly operates on a model of labor shortage in the legal industry, I can’t help thinking that there might be some merit in an undergraduate Law major.

    I think such a major should include the required 1L curriculum, several classes that introduce undergraduates to the realities of law practice (your undergraduate Legal Studies class at Northwestern would serve as an excellent template), and a practicum, say as a paralegal, or working in a clinic.

    Undergraduates would still then go to law school. But if they got satisfactory marks in their undergraduate “1L” equivalents, they could earn credit for them–much the same way undergraduates can “pass out” of certain classes with AP/IB credits. The result would be that excellent students could reduce their time in law school down to two years.

    Under this model, I don’t think we would see a tremendous increase in law school enrollment. Students who choose to get their JD after undergrad would now be better informed, and could potentially mitigate some of their debt. Alternatively, Law majors who decide law practice isn’t for them could then follow many of their peers and pursue a job or alternative graduate studies straight out of undergrad.

    I think–well, maybe hope–this last feature could go a long way to curbing enrollment numbers. It’s much easier, psychologically speaking, to never start, than to drop out. Especially if you’re well-versed in the rigors awaiting you in your chosen career path.

    Forearmed and forewarned,
    Eric

  3. The long simmering debate concerning law schools, namely whether they are institutions of pure higher learning or vocational schools has largely paralyzed these institutions and caused a great deal of schizophrenia. Self interest by law school academics has caused them to promote the rather silly notion that law schools are academies of higher learning. But, the real dilemma is that in order for those academics to hue to the artifice of gaming US News’ annual rankings. US News, in turn, makes no pretension about how it evaluates law schools: it’s all about getting jobs.

    The US system for educating and training lawyers is broken beyond all repair. Too many students, law school professors with nary a notion of what it means to practice law, intellectual dishonesty by the academy (a few brave academics have had the courage to espouse the truth, including Steve Harper, Bill Henderson and Brian Tamahana), the refusal by the business community to further abide the notion that it should pay for lawyers’ practical training by refusing to pay for time billed by untrained first and second year associates (thus no longer filling the void of current legal education) have all contributed to the current malaise and may result in the real demise of these vaunted shockingly expensive institutions.

    Perhaps we should take a much closer look at medical schools. They churn out practice ready physicians, They do so by teaching real science (not the evolution of scientific theory over some centuries) with an equal measure of real life training in the hospital wards. The medical academy is largely populated by accomplished practitioners who know of what they speak.

    Steve Harper teaches a profoundly interesting class at Northwestern University’s undergraduate school in which undergraduates are taught about what life as a practicing lawyer is all about. I have often wondered whether those students of Steve’s who have gone on got to law school wonder for three years what Harper was talking about only to discover upon graduation that Harper was right all along.

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