High Debt, Poor Job Prospects Expose Legal Education Flaws

PHOTO: John Houseman in The Paper Chase
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America's law schools, reeling from declining enrollment and bleak prospects for indebted graduates, are in desperate need of a shake-up. Says who? The legal profession.

The American Bar Association's Task Force on the Future of Legal Education met recently in Dallas. Its members called the state of law schools dire. Said Thomas W. Lyons III of Rhode Island, "There is almost universal agreement that the current system is broken."

Lyons, contacted by ABC News, spoke with candor and passion about the ills bedeviling legal education, which, he and other attorneys say, cloud the employment picture for new law school graduates and result in legal services priced high above what many Americans can afford to pay. Graduates, he notes, are entering practice lacking such basic skills as how to prepare routine legal documents.

For a long time, he explains, the theory was that new grads would get practical, hands-on training once they joined a law firm. "What do you do when a judge walks in to court?" asks Lyons. "Do you stand up, or sit down?" Law schools didn't teach that. "How do you draft a will?"

Then the economic realities of the legal profession have changed.

Before the 2007-08 recession, says Lyons, fees paid by corporate clients underwrote the cost of law firms' helping to complete the education of young associates: Whatever practicalities they hadn't learned in school could be taught them on the job, while they billed at a robust rate.

Since the recession, corporate clients have been less willing to see their money spent that way. And demand for new lawyers has diminished.

"There's no doubt whatsoever that the employment picture is very bad," Lyon says. "For the class of 2011, the percentage who got full-time jobs was about 55."

The job drought has prompted at least one school—George Washington University—to reach into its own pocket to pay graduates to keep them busy. The university's independent student newspaper, "The GW Hatchet," estimates GW has spent up to $3 million to provide legal work for more than one fifth of the class of 2012. The law school's interim dean calls the program part of GW's career services effort, aimed at helping students acquire skills rather than sit idle.

So expensive is a legal education that it's not uncommon for a jobless graduate to have $100,000 in debt.

Members of the ABA Task Force have entertained all sorts of ideas for fixing law schools' problems. These include reducing the number of years required for a legal education from three to two; encouraging students to go to law school directly from their junior year in college; and creating a new category of legal professional comparable to nurse-practitioners in medicine—technicians whose training would be more than that of a paralegal but less than a lawyer. They could provide legal services but could not represent clients in court.

The Bar Association of Washington State, says Lyons, has already established a program to produce such "limited-license" technicians.

One group that came in for special blame during the Task Force's meeting was tenured law school professors, who, according to the New York Times, "were criticized as having high pay, low productivity and a remote relationship with the practice [as opposed to the theory] of law."

Law schools, says Lyon, exist more for the benefit of professors than students. "They're among the most highly paid tenured professors in academia," he says.

Lyon's fellow Task Force member Jim Chen, a former dean of the University of Louisville's law school, told the Times that tenured professors are a law school's biggest expense. If, to reduce tuition, the curriculum were to be cut from three years to two, Chen told the Times, professors would have to take a cut in pay. But, said he, they would never accept it; so change would have to be forced on them from outside, possibly by state courts.

Critics' characterization of a tenured law professor's life—high pay, not a lot of teaching and a predilection for theory over practice--suggests an entrenched caste modeled on Professor Kingsfield, the imperious Harvard Law professor in the movie "The Paper Chase."

Professor Ngai Pindell takes strong exception to that characterization. Pindell is co-president of SALT , the Society of American Law Teachers, which represents law professors as well as other professionals in legal education.

Pindell, who is also associate dean of the law school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professes not to know what tenured law professors make, but says he suspects they are no more highly paid than dental school or medical school professors.

The legal profession, he says, does indeed face problems delivering its services to a changing market. But the fault does not "lie at the feet of legal professors," who, he says, are by nature problem-solvers. Although looking for a villain is tempting, while professors "are part of the problem" they also, he says, can be part of the solution.

Professor Jackie Gardina, another co-president of SALT, says in an email to ABC News that that though law professors may be an "easy scapegoat," they are not obstacles to reform. They have often pushed for reform within their institutions, she writes, giving examples that include one from her own institution, Vermont Law School. Its General Practice Program equips graduates with what she calls practice-ready skills.

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