The Problem in Context
The crisis in legal education–particularly for law students and recent graduates–is well known and has received considerable media coverage extending well beyond the legal arena. Though some consider it symptomatic of a larger broken educational model, legal education is particularly noteworthy because it is post-graduate, professional education in a field that has enjoyed great prosperity for several decades. But that has changed dramatically, especially since 2008, and law schools face declining enrollment, fiscal pressure creating a corresponding urgency to raise tuition as well as to retain growing numbers of advancement officers to raise funds, an inhospitable job market, and a demand for a compressed, reformed curriculum that ensures graduates are “practice ready.”
But law students–those enrolling as well as many recent graduates–have it far worse than their teachers. They face an unholy Trinity of realities: (1) average law school debt of $120K (note: this does not include undergraduate debt which averages about $25K nationally); (2) dismal job placement numbers (nationally, almost 50% of law graduates do not find full-time employment requiring Bar licensure within nine months of graduation); and (3) an absence of practical skills that make them “market ready” at a time when most clients are no longer willing to pay for “on-the-job-training” as they once did.
Set against this backdrop, what can/should law schools–excepting those few with a differentiated brand (perhaps 20 or so out of nearly 200)–do to help prospective, matriculated, and recently graduated students? Here are some suggestions.
Law schools compete to attract as many applicants as possible for a myriad of self-serving reasons starting with their ranking and the money, prestige, and job security it provides. But just as legal service providers–especially law firms–are being “forced” to respond to what clients are demanding, so too should law schools be more responsive to the demands of their “clients”, students and graduates. And while we are comparing these two inter-connected elements of the legal ecosystem– law schools and service providers– let’s note another parallel: both suffer from a vast cost: value divide. That gap is enormous in law schools; look no farther than the student debt: job placement ratio. Here’s what law schools should be required to do pre-admission:
- Provide accurate data on graduate employment over the past 3 years, both at their school and nationally (this was the subject of a poorly litigated class action and, so, remains a problem).
- Provide each prospective applicant with a realistic assessment (based on test scores, academic performance, and other criteria) for success at law school and how similarly credentialed admitted students have fared upon entering the job market post-graduation.
- Require that all prospective applicants read the Bureau of Labor Statistics Report on Lawyers, focusing on the dismal statistics for attorneys re: depression, alcohol and drug abuse, divorce, suicide, job (dis)satisfaction, etc.
- Absent the foregoing as a baseline, many applicants resemble unqualified mortgage applicants extended sub-prime loans.
Once students take the plunge and matriculate at a law school, caveat emptor should yield to “let’s give the client what s/he needs to make this a successful investment of time, lost opportunity cost, and money.” Just as lawyers and legal service providers should be held accountable for their performance servicing a client, so too should law schools be held to a similar standard. The difference between institutional clients and law students, though, is that clients can “vote with their feet” and find new counsel, but law students are not afforded the same opportunity excepting those few who transfer to another school (they typically pay full freight).
So on to the list of what law schools should do for their matriculated students:
- Assign each student a mentor on day 1– faculty member, adjunct, or alumnus/a. Many top undergraduate programs do this with their alums.
- Mandate a meeting for each new student with the Career Placement Service on day 1, and require regular update meetings. An old friend from graduate school who is now head of (undergraduate) placement at St. Andrews University (Scotland) told me that he and his staff do just that–with limited resources.
- Have at least one required course on the current legal marketplace, what it means to be a lawyer today, and where (new) opportunities may be found. I teach such a course at Georgetown and have had many students urge that it be required. Such a course would likely be taught by an adjunct since the majority of full-time law school faculty have neither practiced at all or, if they have, are generally unfettered with an interest in or knowledge of the legal marketplace, especially the current landscape.
- More emphasis should be placed on “teaching” rather than “research.” This is not to say that law schools should become legal vocational training centers, but how much “legal research” conducted by law professors (in contrast with medical research) advances the society or the profession? If you don’t agree, ask the Chief Justice.
- Go beyond clinics (which, incidentally, are the most expensive component of legal education–which they should not be) and require at least one internship (read: marketplace experience).
- Revise curricula to pair core courses–civil procedure, torts, contract law–with teaching practical skills such as drafting pleadings and preparing contracts.
- Require a course that teaches students how to read a balance sheet, how to draft engagement letters, how to conduct initial client interviews, etc. (not all graduates will land jobs at BigLaw and those that do would be well-served to learn these skills since statistics say they won’t be at their current job too long and mentorship is increasingly rare).
Law schools must do a better job of ensuring their graduates land jobs after graduation. After all, almost half of them are unemployed/under-employed nine months out of law school. And that does not include a number of “employed” graduates who are earning McDonald’s wages paid by their law schools (generally not to perform tasks relevant in the marketplace) so that the schools’ rankings are not pulled down as a result of poor job placement statistics. Here are some suggestions:
- Paradoxically, the access to justice crisis (the average person cannot afford an attorney) provides a wonderful opportunity to address two major problems in the legal vertical:
(1) to employ/train graduates; and (2) to provide legal representation to a large, unserved segment of the population. LegalZoom fills part of the need but does not go nearly all the way in filling this void.
- Law schools should partner with law firms to provide mentors and infrastructure to launch Low Bono law firms (comprised of recent graduates and managed by seasoned attorneys serving pro bono) that address the paradox reference above.
- Law schools should follow the lead of a number of e-Education companies (I realize this will trigger the gag reflex of many in the Academy) by partnering with employers who are looking for graduates trained to perform tasks required by jobs they need filled.
- Law schools should pay particular attention to technology companies who, increasingly, are entering the legal space and need lawyers as well as technologists to develop and, perhaps, to market their products.
- Law schools should embrace innovative programs being forged by legal entrepreneurs and partner with them. A good (and ongoing) example is the Associate Legal Residency Program where law schools partner with a diversified legal service provider. The provider hires and trains a number of the schools’ recent graduates and deploys them–with requisite supervision– on client matters.
- Law schools should hire Career Placement officers who have had recent practice experience coupled with a grasp of the current legal landscape. They look beyond the narrow “traditional” job sources (law firms, Government, and not-for-profits) and provide meaningful career guidance instead of simply coordinating on-campus interviews (which are declining at all but the top-ranked law schools).
It need not be all gloom and doom for law students and recent graduates, especially those who do not or will not hold degrees from top-tier law schools. There are opportunities out there; they simply are not the same ones that were there a few decades–even a few years–ago. But one cannot identify those opportunities–much less cash in on them–without an understanding of what is happening in the legal ecosystem now. This is the responsibility of law schools. So, here are some final thoughts:
- Law schools must provide their “clients” (students) and employers what they need–match training to market demand. This does not require a wholesale gutting of law school curricula but it does mean that it cannot be “business as usual” for law schools any more than it is for law firms or OGC’s.
- The key stakeholders of the legal ecosystem–law schools, providers, and clients–should work together to repair the fractured environment. To do so would serve everyone’s interest (excepting, perhaps, a few BigLaw equity partners and some tenured law school faculty).
- There is a way to “do good and do well.”
- Finally, there is an opportunity to restore the tarnished image of the legal profession, both from within and from without.