What if any ethical obligations do law faculty have, in our capacity as classroom teachers, to address the employment and debt crisis our graduates face? In the past few months I’ve been approached by four students attending the law school where I teach, each of whom wanted to discuss (in the context of an office meeting rather than a classroom discussion) whether or not they should remain in law school. In addition I’ve gotten emails from several other students attending other law schools, asking the same question.
In each case I’ve tried to give my opinion candidly and straightforwardly, while taking into account their various individual circumstances, and especially the considerable limits of my knowledge in regard to both themselves and those circumstances. That is all well and good, but what about students who are struggling with the same issue, yet aren’t assertive (or desperate) enough to broach the topic with a faculty member, even one who they have reason to believe will not judge them for having doubts about their current career path?
I struggled with this question at the beginning of this semester, when I began to teach the first-year required Property course. Few moments in life tend to be as predictably dismal as the first day of the second semester of law school, at least for the vast majority of students who, for perhaps the first time in their lives, find themselves making mediocre or worse grades.
The current crisis in the employment market for law graduates is naturally making the traditional angst and depression that marks this moment quite a bit worse. This, to echo a metaphor employed by Jim Milles in one of his posts, is the several thousand-pound elephant in every law school classroom at the moment, whether the faculty member in that room chooses to acknowledge it or not.
On the first day of class, after an introductory lecture, I decided to gently prod that elephant in a rather oblique way, by making clear to the students that I understood many of them might have concerns about their futures, and in particular about the extent to which law school was still a choice that made sense for them. I indicated I was always open to discussing such matters, in a confidential and non-judgmental manner, and that indeed a willingness to do so was part of the requirements of my job.
This, it seems to me, is something that we ought to be explicit about with our students. Many of them understandably get the impression that expressing doubts about continuing their legal education is something that law schools, as self-interested institutions, discourage them from doing. But the fact of the matter is that, given the economic realities of the broader situation, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the first-year dropout rate ought to be much higher than it currently is.
A much bolder approach than the one I’ve taken would be to discuss your own law school’s actual placement statistics in the context of a regular class session. Many law schools are still not providing their prospective and current students with anything close to transparent employment and salary data. Even schools that do put something like useful data up on their web sites do not necessarily do so in a way that will encourage prospective and current students to interpret that data accurately.
For instance, I wonder if it would be appropriate for me (this is not a rhetorical device; I sincerely wonder about the answer to this question) to make clear to my first years, 50% of whom are in the bottom half of their class after one sixth of their law school grades have been registered, that a close look at the employment and salary statistics for my law school’s 2010 class reveals that 93 of 183 graduates had a full time long-term position requiring a law degree nine months after graduation, and that we had been able to identify only 36 of those graduates who had a salary of $56,000 or more.
Given that most members of the first year class are going to spend around $100,000 in tuition before they graduate, in addition to perhaps half as much again in living expenses and other associated costs (absurdly, casebooks now cost law students several thousand dollars over the course of their law school careers), those should be daunting numbers for them to contemplate. They become even more daunting when one considers that I teach at a law school ranked among the top quarter of ABA accredited institutions.
What worries me is how little we, the faculty and the administration, seem to worry about what appears to be an increasingly extreme disjunction between the cost of legal education and its expected return for our graduates. Given how little attention we have given this subject, relative to its importance -- at least in the context of formal institutional discussions -- this only emphasizes how pressing the question has become of the extent to which we are obligated to discuss these matters with our students.
I would like to suggest that it might make sense for all law faculty to spend at least part of one class period this semester discussing our own school’s employment and salary figures with our students, and especially with our first-year students, if we have any. For many law teachers (although I imagine this doesn’t apply to any of the participants in this particular forum, given its subject matter) this would require that they first familiarize themselves with those figures. Even that, of course, would be an important step in the right direction.