Every week, there’s a new proposal to reform legal education. In a recent New York Times op-ed, John J. Farmer Jr., dean of the Rutgers School of Law in Newark, offered his suggestion: two-year apprenticeships.
Most deans operate in good faith and are genuinely concerned about the current state of the profession. In fact, a core element of dean Farmer’s idea is quite sound. Hands-on training was a good idea when Clarence Darrow studied under the tutelage of a practicing attorney, and it still is. The British placement system of training contracts has kept its lawyer bubble smaller than ours.
But Darrow began his apprenticeship after one year of classes. Farmer’s suggestion of a two-year residency following three years of law school misses the mark, as do his predictions about what it would accomplish.
Problems of mysterious origin
Farmer begins where he must: a collapsing job market; law school deception in creating the oversupply of lawyers; record tuition levels and student debt. But he ignores an important question: How did those things happen? The answer: a flawed law school business model.
Consider Farmer’s point about law school deception. For years, his school joined most others in reporting 90-plus percent employment rates for the newest graduates. In the 2008 ABA Official Law School Guide, Rutgers-Newark showed a 93.3 percent employment rate; as recently as the 2012 Official Guide, it was 91.3 percent.
Starting in 2012, the ABA required schools to reveal which graduates had long-term full-time jobs requiring a legal degree. Rutgers-Newark hit the overall average for all law schools: only 56 percent for the class of 2011.
As for lawyer oversupply, Rutgers-Newark has been a continuing contributor. According to the 2008 Official Guide, Rutgers-Newark matriculated 182 full-time students from 3,010 applicants. Since then, the number of applicants has declined dramatically, but the number of enrollments hasn’t.
The 2013 Official Guide reports that Rutgers-Newark received only 2,218 applicants to its full-time program. Yet the school still matriculated 174 new students. In other words, since 2007, the number of applicants has dropped by 800 (26 percent), but first-year enrollment has declined by only eight students (4 percent).
Farmer also laments record levels of tuition and resulting student debt. The 2008 Official Guide listed Rutgers-Newark’s full-time non-resident tuition and fees at $27,976; residents paid $19,623. Today, non-resident tuition at the school exceeds $37,000 — a 33 percent jump. Resident tuition has increased by almost 30 percent and now exceeds $25,000.
Ignoring the role of law schools in creating the current crisis leads Farmer to a proposal that won’t solve it. He suggests scrapping the system whereby big firms “hire graduates from a few select schools, paying them exorbitantly.” In its place, he wants a residency program that would allow law firms “to hire more lawyers, at lower rates, and give talented graduates of less prestigious institutions a chance to shine.”
During his proposed two-year apprenticeships, students would work for minimal wages (“repaying their debts could be suspended, as it is for medical residents”). At the end of the period, firms “could then select whom to keep.” For the losers in that contest, job searches would start anew.
Not gonna happen
Apart from retaining the flawed law school business model that has taken the profession to its current state, Farmer’s plan requires a remarkable leap of faith in big law firm behavior. In particular, he hopes that firms would charge lower hourly rates for new associates and, as a result, hire more of them.
Unlike many law school deans, Farmer has extensive experience as a practicing lawyer. But when he tries to predict the behavior of big law firm leaders, he enters tricky terrain.
The prevailing law firm business model perverts the definition of productivity to mean total billable hours, rather than the efficiency with which lawyer inputs produce outputs for clients. The model emphasizes the metrics of near-term profits at the expense of longer-run values. It would view reducing associate labor costs as a godsend to its bottom line, not as a reason to spread the same amount of existing work among more lawyers.
Farmer doesn’t suggest reducing tuition, enrollment, or the duration of law school itself. Such steps would challenge the law school business model directly. That’s the real lesson of dean Farmer’s op-ed: Until deans revisit their roles in creating the current mess, their proposed solutions are likely to remain wanting.
Dean Farmer suggests, “Legal education has not so much failed the profession as mirrored it.” Actually, it’s done both.