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Many of my students go to work at law firms, and a large percentage work at large law firms. While that statement — many law students go to work at large law firms — has been true for decades, the firms to which those students are going have changed substantially, in terms of size, scale of activities, mobility of both partners and associates, and demands on lawyers’ time. Law schools have also experienced changes, but the pace of change has been far less dramatic. FIRM FOES? From outside of law schools, some criticism has emerged about the degree to which law schools are out of sync with the world of practice. The conventional story is that law schools and law firms are in different worlds: Law schools are enamored with “law and theory,” and law firms are engaged in the “real world.” My story here is how the growth of large law firms has affected law schools by altering the market for their graduates, and how law school tuition levels affect students’ decisions to work at such firms. Law practice has changed, with firms ever more focused on the “bottom line.” Students and new associates, burdened by massive debts, are also attentive to the economics of practicing law; a prime consideration for both partners and new associates is how to make the most money in the least amount of time. This focus on money by law firms and lawyers diminishes loyalty both ways. What are the implications of this for the law school-law firm relationship? Let me begin with the ways in which the current relationship “works” and may be mutually advantageous, at an institutional level. First, law schools are able to charge tuition at a level that students would not otherwise be able to afford. Through employment at firms, graduates pay for their legal (and in many cases undergraduate) education. Second (especially in the market of the last several years, and even still today), many law schools enjoy the high employment rates of their graduates. And successful graduates can make significant contributions to their law schools’ development campaigns. A large number of law schools have recently boasted of higher-than-ever giving and larger-than-ever endowments. Third, law schools may benefit from the unhappiness of some practicing lawyers who, seeking to exit practice, are eager to teach law. The law-teaching market has become increasingly competitive, as numbers of applicants from law practice (as well as graduates of other disciplines seeking teaching positions) seek a finite number of jobs. Law firms also now offer law professors lucrative consulting opportunities, as the market for “experts” to testify on the law (of ethics, class actions, lawyer fees, and the like) has expanded. In turn, law firms rely on law schools to screen potential employees, using law schools’ admission criteria and sorting mechanisms in lieu of their own search costs to find individuals whom they believe will fill their needs for competitive, high-achieving, hard-working, and compliant workers. Further, given the debt load, the firms can rely on workers needing to earn high incomes, thereby not challenging the terms and conditions of employment. Despite these benefits, this pattern of relationships breeds unhappiness as well. Given the substantial debt load of new associates, the degree to which they seek jobs based on who pays the most has probably intensified. The sense of security in a particular law firm affiliation may also have lessened, because of the potential for law firm demise or transformation through mergers. Current partner and associate mobility increases the anxiety of new associates about which firm will provide the source of income to pay their debts. The system is also dysfunctional in that sophisticated players (ranging from law partners and professors through associates and, to an increasing extent, law students) develop strategies to take advantage of each other, in increasingly (mutually) exploitative but unhappy fashion. Given that I am a law professor, I worry about the ethical implications — for law schools — of participating in this system. What might law schools, even as they benefit economically, do to affect the world into which they send their students? NEW POSSIBILITIES A first suggestion addresses the real economies and costs of the current system. The high turnover rate of associates may build in unnecessary costs. Given law schools’ interest and expertise in law and economics, the time has come to investigate seriously the actual costs of current practices. To do so, the relationship between law firms and law schools would need to take a new turn — toward a willingness of law firms to permit access (if need be, confidentially) to inside data about billing, expenses, and overhead, to enable a cross-firm comparison of the effects of rates of employee turnover, at all levels, and to alternative forms of compensation packages. Variables would include some measure of the costs of training for certain kinds of legal practice, the costs of recruitment, the effects on morale, the costs to clients of change, and the degree to which the mobility of lawyers affects client bases. Another suggestion relates to the degree to which law schools, which help to create market value for law firms in the sense of being desirable placements for their students, might alter the measures of value. Students shop firms when in law schools. Whether advice from either law professors or placement offices has significant impact is open to question; we do know that peer information has great purchase. Nevertheless, law schools could try to implement an evaluative system of firms — a ranking or rating — that includes quality-of-life measures as determined by interviews from that school’s graduates and, if possible, from a wider resource base. Rather than cede such evaluative processes to The American Lawyer and other publications, law schools could try to proffer alternative assessments. To do so, of course, requires a law school to invest in knowledge and also to risk alienation of some potential donors — and thus requires both empirical sophistication and moral consciousness. A third suggestion concerns whether clients really require the workplace environment so common in law firms today, and whether the clients can exercise power to change the status quo. As more in-house counsel are refugees from law firms, perhaps some of them might be convinced to select firms to represent their companies because their more reasonable workloads produce better work product (i.e., questioning the quality of worker productivity over 17-hour days). Such inquiries would be aimed at learning whether some of the aspects of the miseries experienced individually (fragile alliances, undue pressures to move, too many hours, etc.) are actually also costs, in the dollar sense, to the institutions sufficient that the institutions would have an economic interest in diminishing these costs. Serious investigation into the real world of practice might well yield incentives for change. Yet another (possibly unpopular, from a law school’s point of view) response would be for law schools to ease the tuition and debt burdens on students. They could do this by using their endowment funds to lower tuition. Alternatively, law firms and law schools could work together to develop new packages for compensation. For instance, law firms could pay the student loan debts of their associates, who would then receive a lower starting salary and would agree to work at the firm for a specified period of time — with lower expected billable hours. Related is the question of whether national debt-relief programs and tax code changes could be implemented. Fifth, law firms have a lot to teach law schools. Thus far, continuing legal education programs (some of which may be profit centers for law schools) provide education for lawyers. But they are not vehicles for midcareer lawyers to educate law professors. My suggestion is to consider how law schools can bring in all kinds of law practitioners, not only to teach the students, but to teach the teachers. Practitioners have a wealth of knowledge to impart about the current structures of law practice and the degree to which the substantive areas of legal practice are affected by the modes of practice. Infusion from the profession should go not only toward classes about professionalism and practice, but should affect the curriculum as a whole. The interaction may also be a creative outlet for both law partners (who are often interested in teaching) and for law professors (who are often aware of being outside the center of practice). The teaching relationship can work in both directions. In short, I think that institutional-level reflection is what is required, and that institutional-level action — of a variety of kinds — could be undertaken to begin to respond to the pervasive disquiet. Law students today may see themselves as individuals without much ability to alter the firms where they will practice, just as senior partners may have a parallel sense of inability to affect change in the law schools that supply their work force. But their institutions are not disempowered. With varying degrees of radicalism, law schools and law firms can work together to disrupt the status quo. Dennis E. Curtis is a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School. A longer version of this article appeared in the Southern California Law Review.

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