In my prior post, I discussed how recent economic turbulence has altered what I teach and how I teach it. Now I will share how my experience, work with students, and personal observations lead me to believe that the legal academy has not embraced the tough solutions that this economy demands. In his December 2008 McKinsey Quarterly article “Strategy in a ‘structural break,’” UCLA management school Professor Robert Rumelt opines that we were experiencing a structural break. Rumelt explains that such a break “denotes the moment in time-series data when trends and the patterns of associations among variables change.” Rumelt cautions, “The wrong way forward in a structural break during hard times is to try more of the same. The break and the hard times are sure indications that an old pattern has already been pushed to its limits and is destroying value.”
Of perhaps greatest relevance to the legal services industry, Rumelt voices exasperation over the cost of management structures that our present system requires “companies to spend at least $300,000 a year in wages, benefits, support personnel, and systems to enable one educated person to do his or her job,” warning that such a system “could be unsustainable in a less luxuriant world.”
The $300,000 per year Rumelt references almost perfectly tracks the compensation, benefits, and overhead costs that I allocate to an associate in my Introduction to Law Firm Practice class materials and in my book of the same title. This is the law practice that many now law school professors experienced, and that (as noted, in part due to OCI’s influence) some law students expect: practice at a very large firm, often with little client contact and no real feel for how the firm operated as a business. Yet law students are finding the decreases in new associate hiring have substantially diminished the opportunities for such employment.
Yet many law schools continue to educate students the same way. Students are charged high prices to learn legal thinking and legal philosophy, not what they actually need to succeed in court, in a business transaction, in a law firm, or in another legal practice or setting.
So what can and should law schools do? I offer three points in this manifesto. First, law schools must prepare students to be better able to provide legal services to clients. This includes clinical education courses. But it also includes the contents of substantive classes. When I was a law student, there were two Property professors. One taught only the mental gymnastics of thinking like a lawyer. The other taught real property law. While there may be a place – even a need – for both classes, particularly in the first year of law school, schools must make sure that graduates receive a substantial dose of course that will help them practice. Schools should also send a clear message that a legal philosophy education will best prepare students to be legal philosophers, not lawyers.
Second, law schools should help students better understand the operation of law firms. Most law school graduates still enter private practice. If these lawyers understand how law firms generate clients or profits, they will be better prepared to practice, whether they are running their own firm or trying to survive and succeed as a junior lawyer at someone else’s law firm. Even graduates who do not expect to enter private practice can benefit from a basic understanding of law firm operations and economics, particularly considering the number of lawyers whose careers take unanticipated detours.
In addition, practical learning in legal ethics is critical. I started teaching trust accounting in my legal ethics courses after hearing a Colorado disciplinary counsel discuss that recent graduates were facing an increasing number of bar investigations when they overdrew their trust accounts. Considering that the economy is pushing many lawyers to smaller firms or solo practices, knowledge of trust accounting can be crucial, particularly when mishandling client funds may result in prompt, catastrophic discipline.
Third, law schools need to take some responsibility for students’ economic situations. For years, law schools have increased tuition at rates much faster than inflation, knowing law students could obtain (often federally funded) education loans to pay the increases. The result is that, through consolidation, lawyers today will likely be paying off their own student loans as their kids entered college. The recent economic downturn makes this even more probable.
Addressing such issues in part means working to ensure that at or shortly after graduation law students are more capable of practicing law, and practicing it successfully. Thus, this point ties back to my prior two points. But law schools can and should do more. Law schools need to examine how they can reduce the economic burden on students, including reducing the cost of legal education. This may include tuition reductions, offering alternative payment arrangements, and loan repayment programs (which are too limited if they reach only pro bono lawyers, and ignore that many other graduates face huge economic struggles in trying to live and repay loans. I don’t have perfect solutions. I leave that for the more knowledgeable legal educators in this Symposium.
Finally, law schools can and should provide accurate information for applicants and students about job prospects upon graduation. Having worked hard to make law firms more transparent, I commend those pushing for greater transparency in the law school application process as well. Only then can people make intelligent choices about whether they want to be lawyers, as well as where they will try to be lawyers.