Michael A. Simons
Q: Is a law school education a good buy in the current economic environment? Why is law school so expensive?
A: A law school education is still a “good buy.” A law degree is a durable good: The critical thinking, analytical ability and real world business skills gained in law school are both fungible and marketable in the legal profession and in business outside the law.
Prospective law students need to be wise consumers and approach law school as they approach any other major investment: They should analyze the costs and benefits, understand their risk tolerance and ability to take on student-loan debt, and be realistic about their employment prospects in the current marketplace.
Higher education, not just law school, is expensive today because schools need to build excellent faculties, maintain excellent physical plants, and serve a diverse student body from a range of economic backgrounds. St. John’s trains students to be profession-ready, and that requires a curriculum with extensive hands-on training and low student-to-faculty ratios.
At St. John’s, we are taking concrete steps both to reduce the size of our class and to reduce expenses to keep legal education affordable. We have also greatly expanded the scholarship assistance that we provided to students.
Q: Are you confident that there will be enough legal jobs in the foreseeable future to accommodate your graduates? In what sector will graduates find those jobs (for example, in government, large firms, small firms, insurance agencies)?
A: We can’t predict the future of the legal marketplace. Right now, supply is outpacing demand in most major markets across the United States, but, as fewer people attend law school, demand and supply will eventually align. We are taking concrete steps to make our graduates as marketable as possible through a curriculum that is practical and skills-oriented, through career counseling that is individualized and proactive, and through clinic, externship and other field-placement opportunities that are expansive and engaging. Despite the struggling economy, our students are getting jobs in all of the major sectors (large firms, small and midsize firms, government, and public interest). We are grateful for the outpouring of support from our dedicated alumni, who regularly turn to us to help fill positions.
Times are challenging not just for law school graduates but for young people generally. In this economy, it is important that law students approach their education strategically so that they are not just “getting a degree,” but building a path to the profession. At St. John’s, we have structured our curriculum and our advising processes so that students can identify and develop a career pathway in one or more practice areas. That pathway will include foundational courses, advanced courses, drafting courses, clinics, field placements, and extra-curricular activities—all focused on developing practical skills and targeted expertise for profession-readiness. Lawyers who have cultivated expertise in a particular field, industry, or practice area are in particular demand.
Q: What changes have been made to the curriculum to ensure students are well prepared for a career?
A: We have taken several steps in recent years to ensure that our curriculum is preparing our students for career success.
First, we have remained firmly grounded in the fundamentals. Each of our students takes Contracts, Property, Torts, Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, Professional Responsibility, an advanced procedure course, and at least five additional core courses.
Second, our students receive extensive training in legal writing. Our required curriculum includes four semesters of intensive writing experiences, and many students take far more. We particularly focus on training our students to draft documents that lawyers need in practice. Most of our students take at least two drafting courses from a roster of over 35 advanced practice writing courses. In those classes, students get hands-on experience drafting contracts, judicial opinions, adoption documents, intellectual-property licenses, alternative-dispute-resolution documents, and a wide variety of other practice-specific documents. Our objective is that by the end of the course, each student will be able to transact the deal, acquire the license, draft the will, write the decision, complete the adoption, and have the writing skills necessary to succeed in practice. We also maintain a Law School Writing Center, where 20 upper-level student consultants help peers improve their writing skills. The Writing Center and writing program have been very successful. Over the last four years, some 70 St. John’s law students have won national writing competitions or had their papers published in outside journals in the past four years.
Third, our students have extensive opportunities to learn by assisting attorneys in the actual practice of law. We have 13 clinics in which students represent real clients. We also have a robust externship program that affords students hands-on training in both the private and the public sectors. Along with their externship placements, students take a one- or two-credit seminar that teaches skills that lawyers need, such as writing letters and emails, investigating and presenting facts, interviewing and counseling, negotiating, assessing the merits of a case, and writing and presenting short articles of the type that would appear in a practice-oriented bar journal.
Fourth, we have organized the curriculum so that it fits with an integrated approach to career development. A Career Development course is now part of our first-year students’ experience, and our academic advising is closely tied with career development. We work with each student to identify a career pathway, to take courses that align with that area, to gain relevant real world experience through clinics and externships in that path, and to build a professional network with our more than 15,000 living alumni.
While our J.D. degree remains a generalist one—and, indeed, our required curriculum ensures that all students graduate with a strong and broad foundation in the law—we also work with students to hone their expertise in one or more areas of the law. Our newly expanded Career Development Office is staffed by counselors who specialize in each of the major career pathways. The Law School’s faculty and nine academic centers provide opportunities for networking, experience, and professional growth.
Q: What does your school do to make it stand out among the state’s 15 law schools?
A: For many years, St. John’s has provided a legal education that other law schools are just now trying to implement in reaction to the current marketplace—one that offers a rigorous grounding in the fundamentals, coupled with extensive hands-on training that produces “profession-ready” graduates. We also have a reputation for producing graduates who are unafraid of hard work. They did not approach their education—and they do not approach their careers—with any sense of entitlement. That value does much to explain our graduates’ success in the profession.
And yet, while our students work very hard, they do so in an environment that is supportive and nurturing. We are blessed with a faculty of excellent teachers whose doors are open to their students and who are invested in their students’ career success.
Another striking attribute of St. John’s is that many of our alumni remain in the area, visit the school, share their skills, mentor our students, give our students externships and jobs, and contribute as donors. Our alumni across the country also stay connected to alma mater in important ways.
A third thing that enriches St. John’s is that, as a metropolitan law school, we can call on a wide array of prominent attorneys to teach as adjuncts. Successful practicing attorneys teach many of our skills and practice-writing courses, advise our students on career choices, help the students with their networking, and sometimes hire the students when they graduate.
Our Law School is part of St. John’s University, so law students can acquire several joint degrees, including a long standing J.D./M.B.A. and a recently invigorated J.D./M.S. in Accounting. With increasing numbers, students are turning to the joint degrees to increase their marketability in business and industry.
Q: How do you plan to implement the requirement that law students complete 50 hours of pro bono before being admitted to the bar?
A: St. John’s has a deep-seated commitment to public service and to work in the public interest. We trace our roots to St. Vincent de Paul, and we continue to be animated by his zeal for service and his compassion for the poor. In that spirit, service to the poor has always been a part of St. John’s mission, and we are pleased that the Court of Appeals has now institutionalized that commitment for all aspiring New York lawyers.
We already have in place the service infrastructure that will enable our students to satisfy the new requirements. Through our extensive clinic and externship programs, our students engage in practical and hands-on learning while serving the public good. Our students also participate in pro bono projects through which they assist low-income debtors, low-income tenants, victims of domestic violence, and immigrants. The newly announced rules allow students to tap into the educational infrastructure that we have already built. Through our clinics, externships, internships, and law school service projects, our students will not just “do” pro bono work, they will learn about their life-long obligation as members of the legal profession to use their legal training in service of the poor.
Q: What advice would you offer students about how to make the most of their law school experience?
A: At Orientation for our new students this year, I gave them three bits of advice:
1. Work hard, but take care of yourself. Exercise, sleep, socialize (once in a while). Do not let the demands of law study overwhelm you.
2. Serve. Do not let the pressures of law school cause you to lose sight of the fundamental ideal of the legal profession: Justice.
3. Be an entrepreneur. You are the product, and you should view your law school years as a time of product development.