I was recently interviewed for an MSNBC.com article on recent law grads. As I understand it, the article is about how law grads are coping with a very difficult employment situation.
The common refrain among grads and lawyers is that there are simply too many lawyers. This, as I tried to explain, misses the point.
There are two major problems with the legal marketplace. First, legal education in the United States is poorly suited to producing properly trained lawyers, particularly solo or small-firm practitioners. That’s because relatively few legal academics – a.k.a, law professors – ever practiced law as a solo or small firm practitioner.
Most of them either worked for government – as clerks, prosecutors, judges, or Department of Justice lawyers – or they worked for large, prestigious law firms.
Consequently, professors generally don’t know how to advise students about how to start a law practice, even though that was the way that law was practiced for much of history until about the 1940s.
Second, American legal education is too long, and I suspect there’s very little connection between the length of legal education, and the quality of the lawyers who are produced by that educational system. Many other advanced, industrialized (even common law countries) don’t require a graduate degree to practice law. Undergraduates in those countries take a concentration in law, and then apprentice (or intern, as we like to call it in modern language).
State bars around the United States have effectively mandated a three-year legal education (with some very minor exceptions) so that virtually everyone who practices law goes through this system. It’s a waste of time, a waste of talent, and a waste of money.
As a result of these three year programs, students come out heavily burdened by debt. They naturally are eager to foist the cost of that debt onto their clients. For instance, corporations hire big law firms and pay associates $150,000 a year and up in New York or Washington, DC.
The recent grads have the prestige of earning a high salary, although most of them are so burdened by debt that their effective income is much lower than the $150,000/year would suggest.
These three year programs make it especially difficult for young lawyers to adapt in a down-economy. The cost of legal education rarely goes down. Consequently, even in a weak economy, young lawyers emerge with high debt, which makes the option of, for instance, going solo less appealing and even impossible.
What’s the solution? Calls for “more practical legal education” are all well and good, but are merely bandaids, especially since law schools are so poorly equipped to actually teach practical skills. I learned more during my extensive work with the Wake County Public Defender about how to practice law than I did in all of my law school classes combined. I learned a ton of valuable lessons in the courtroom that to this day make me much more effective for my clients than I otherwise would be.
But a far better reform would be the elimination of the three-year law school. I think “law school” as such could be converted into an undergraduate major. Obviously, if someone wanted to get a Master of Laws, they could certain do so. So long as they “passed the bar” (the topic of another post for another day), they could be lawyers.
Of course, practicing lawyers will scream bloody murder. Most lawyers don’t want more competition.
But eliminating the three year law school would almost certainly not damage the quality of law practiced, would lower the cost of legal services to clients, and would unburden thousands of young people who might otherwise face piles of law school debt.
For people considering applying or going to law school in this economy, recognize that while the practice of law, in my view, is enormously rewarding, law school is the opposite. So be prepared to suffer through three years of a not-very-difficult, but incredibly dispiriting educational experience before you are permitted to practice.