PRACTICAL SKILLS

A few days after the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the loss of another 2,600 legal jobs in June, the Wall Street Journal ran “Law Schools Get Practical.” Some schools are changing curriculum to develop skills that real lawyers need; that makes sense. But some hope that more big law positions for graduates will result; that is magical thinking.

Reconsidering legal education is important. The first year teaches students to think like lawyers; the second year covers important substantive areas. To deal with the universally maligned third year, Stanford is considering a clinical course requirement involving 40-hour plus weeks of actual case work, while Washington and Lee University of Law School replaced lectures and seminars with “case-based simulations run by practicing lawyers.”

Meanwhile, Harvard has updated its curriculum significantly in recent years. Indiana University Maurer School of Law teaches “project management” and “emotional intelligence.” NYU offers courses in “negotiation” and “client counseling.” Some innovations are more valuable than others, but no one should think that improved job prospects will result.

The article quoted a recruiter at McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP who said that clients weren’t willing to pay for new lawyer training. Likewise, Xerox’s general counsel described his company’s policy of not paying for first-year associates. The implication is that if new graduates received more practical training in school, clients would pay for them and hiring would increase. Not a chance.

First, new associates in large firms don’t need the practical skills that most law schools are promoting. If there were courses on “maximizing billable hours,” “withstanding unreasonable partner demands,” or “surviving a culture of attrition where fewer than ten percent of new associates will become equity partners,” that would be one thing. But document review, due diligence undertakings, and other mundane tasks that consume most big law associates’ early years don’t require much special training. Some don’t even require a law degree. Xerox — and many other companies sharing its dim view of first-year associate value — won’t start paying for young attorneys just because they have taken the new courses.

Second, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 have moved steadily upward over the last decade — to over $1.3 million in 2010. If those firms are already “suffering” from client resistance to paying for new associates, partners nevertheless seem to be thriving financially.

Finally, when asked whether current law school innovations will help students land jobs, Timothy Lloyd, chair of Hogan Lovells recruiting committee, told the Journal:

“It could enhance the reputation of the law school…as places that will produce lawyers who have practical skills. As to the particular student when I’m interviewing them? It doesn’t make much of a difference.”

Bingo. As a big law interviewer myself, I looked for intelligence, personality, and potential. Specific courses didn’t matter. Assessing candidates was and is subjective but, to adapt Justice Stewart’s pornography test, I usually knew a good one when I saw one.

Schools should expand clinical programs, but not because such student credentials matter to large firm recruiters. They don’t. However, those who don’t get big law jobs really need practical lawyering skills. Do it for them — the vast majority of today’s 50,000 annual graduates.

Schools should modernize curriculum, but not to become business school knockoffs for big law. That’s a mistake.

Even more urgently, schools should educate prospective attorneys more fully about the big law path — from the challenge of getting a job to the unforgiving billable hours culture to the elusive brass ring of equity partnership. (See, e.g., The Partnership)

That would be real reform, but at most place it won’t happen. Yale’s cautionary memo about the real meaning of 2,000 billable hours a year and Stanford’s “Alternatives to Big Law” series that compliments its outstanding student loan forgiveness program are hopeful beginnings. But such candor runs counter to the enticing big firm starting salaries that pervade law school websites aimed at the next generation of would-be lawyers. After all, their student loans pay the bills.