There is not a law school in the nation whose tag line reads “we only graduate people who practice law.” It would simply be foolish to say such a thing when it has long been acknowledged that practicing law is only one way to utilize a law degree. Indeed, a J.D. is a versatile degree, just ask 25 of 44 U.S. Presidents how they used theirs. So, why are the various regulators and reviewers of law schools making a sharp delineation between those graduates that are practicing law in the traditional sense which requires the Bar exam and those graduates using their degree in other ways?
It seems that in these changing times, our focus should be less on holding steadfast to tradition and more on expansion of the profession. Instead, our regulators, reviewers and surveyors have decided to categorize our new law graduates into several categories, the largest of which are “Bar passage required” and “J.D. advantage.” “Bar passage required” is the traditional bar-required, practicing lawyer position whose title is commonly “associate” or “attorney.” “J.D. advantage” positions are professional positions that utilize the J.D. degree skill set but do not require that the candidates necessarily take and pass the bar exam (although most do). This issue is much more than the regulating bodies proposing these two distinctions. The real problem is one of perception because the J.D. advantage position is actually perceived as “less than” a J.D. required position. In my view, this is misguided, and in fact hurtful to the legal industry.
Looking at the bar passage versus J.D. advantage distinction with a critical eye brings up certain practical issues. It is assumed that a J.D. required position is more prestigious and has a better salary level. However, for many law graduates entering positions in compliance, HR and entrepreneurial roles, this is not the case. In fact, the comparison is like the proverbial comparing of apples and oranges. By creating this artificial distinction, the American Bar Association (ABA), National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and U.S. News & World Report are taking a stand on which track is more valuable or more prestigious, even if only by perception. This line of thinking is sorely behind the entrepreneurial mindset of our current economy.
The millennial generation, which currently fills most of the seats in law school classes, is very focused on anything entrepreneurial. This does not necessarily mean new paradigms need to be created; rather, these students are looking to do things differently within current structures. They want to do it their way! In July 2013, Kaplan did an (admittedly) small study of students taking the LSAT. They asked if the students intended to practice law after law school. More than half of these LSAT takers stated they had no intention of ever practicing law and were considering employment outside of traditional legal roles. Those same LSAT takers are now in our law schools. Their entrepreneurial viewpoint and their lack of pursuit of the traditional “associate” position will hurt their law schools on the post-graduate surveys because any other thing they pursue will be counted in the J.D. advantage column rather than required. As the market and law students are changing, I do not know why all of our legal educators are not following suit. The law schools are responding to this shift in many different ways. One of the ways law schools are responding is by offering more and different experiential learning classes than ever before. At Pace Law School where I work, the number of curricular offerings far surpass the bar tested subjects and include areas such as compliance, e-discovery and forensics in the curriculum and externships including these disciplines. There is not an MBA program out there that does not have some form of business law classes weaved into the curriculum. I am not sure why law schools took so long to follow suit and start offering core business training. We are teaching law students differently than the last millennium, incorporating technology that is now required for practice and providing more practical training. So why are we not ranking, judging and thinking about the law schools and their graduates differently?
Law schools that are wed to traditional law curriculums and are not investing in the new landscape are largely threatened by the rise of the J.D. advantage jobs. While faculty at schools like Pace are leading the way, there are others that are feeling the change in a more fundamental way. There are articles that use the word “threat” when describing the J.D. advantage job market versus traditional law school pedagogy. The people that credit this argument believe that law schools do not properly prepare students for careers in disciplines such as compliance, HR and entrepreneurial endeavors. This is a false assumption. The mere fact that so many of the new graduates in recent years have been hired into such roles shows the desire and need for lawyers to be in these disciplines because of their legal training.
My response to all of this is an emphatic call for the legal profession to embrace and include these roles in the halls of law instead of “other.” At the risk of sounding a bit like Chicken Little, I believe that the very existence of the legal profession and bar associations must expand to include all those areas that utilize the law degree at the risk of extinction or at least drastic reduction in ranks. As the market and law students are changing, I do not know why all of our legal educators are not following suit.
One of the hard truths of the current legal economy is that there are not enough traditional associate positions for every law school graduate. Therefore, law schools are encouraging students to seek jobs in compliance, risk, health care, technology and labor that may be outside of the traditional lawyer role but fit squarely into the law as a profession. Yet, those that review law schools still want to differentiate these jobs and judge the law schools based on the landing of the few in the smaller pot of associate positions instead. That is clearly out of step with the way legal education and the legal market is headed. We need to review how we critique law schools, because as with many things, the old rules are no longer applicable.