High Debt, Poor Job Prospects Expose Legal Education Flaws

PHOTO: John Houseman in The Paper Chase

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.

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