Recent news articles describe soaring tuition costs and growing enrollments, all in the face of fewer jobs awaiting law school graduates. See, e.g., David Segal, “Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!” N.Y. Times, July 17, 2011, BU1. A related question is whether law students are receiving value for their tuition money. Law schools are charged with the responsibility of preparing students for the practice of law. Law schools grade students. How would the students grade law schools?
Although it is difficult to generalize about how law schools would respond to the question of whether they are doing a good job in preparing law students for the practice of law — or, more pointedly, whether they could do a better job — the general question is well worth asking. Some law schools may answer by stating that there is a broader purpose (or higher purpose) to a legal education. Nevertheless, the preponderance of law students go to law school to become engaged in the actual practice of law, which would include practicing in a law firm or working as a lawyer in business or government.
I am reminded of a conversation I had some time ago with the president of a university. This president commented that when he asked the deans of the medical school, engineering school and architectural school how they were addressing their students’ needs to practice in their specialized fields, thoughtful answers were given with the students and their chosen practices in mind. However, when the president asked the dean of the law school the same question, the president was greeted with a blank stare, as if to say, “This isn’t our role.” The implication: “We don’t discuss these matters with our students, alumni or law firms, and our law school is an academic institution with many of our professors having Ph.D.s in other fields. Indeed, a very small percentage of our full-time faculty has practiced law or, if they have, only a very small percentage of them have been partners in law firms.”
From the early 1990s through 2007, this was a response that was perhaps not detrimental to students, because of the law firm demand for law school graduates. The recession, however, should have been a wake-up call. The dynamics have changed.
As noted above, law firm hiring of law student graduates has declined markedly and there is little sign that hiring will ever return to prerecession levels. The stories are not infrequent about students with large law school loans working in fast-food restaurants. Law schools, when reporting employment of their graduates, apparently count employment anywhere, including often menial jobs, and not just employment in law firms. There has also been rumors of law school part-time hiring of law school graduates during the measuring period of job success to fudge and improve their numbers. Hard statistics on this subject are a challenge to come by.
A common refrain from law firm clients is that they do not want to pay fees for associates’ on-the-job training. Nor do they want to pay for what they deem excessive staffing. More law firms are using contract lawyers who are employees of agencies for work formerly done by associates, or hiring lawyers (including contract lawyers) who are not on partnership track — a euphemism for, among other things, lower pay. All of this, coupled with continuing fee pressure on law firms at all lawyer levels, will likely result in a continuing problem of entry-level law firm employment for graduating law students. The norm of law firms hiring large numbers of first-year associates at uniform salaries, without regard to their usefulness in that particular firm, may be in decline.
The recession heightened another phenomenon in the law firm environment. Lawyers at the other end of the spectrum (i.e., older lawyers) were, prior to the recession and more so during and after, being de-equitized, “retired” or given substantial declines in compensation. There are very few older lawyers who cannot be replaced by younger lawyers on the basis of skill sets. The message to older lawyers is to maintain deep relationships with clients and continually generate new clients. How this translates into a law curriculum could also be addressed by law schools.
It should be noted some law firms that historically focused primarily on grades are now looking for qualities in students that demonstrate a skill set which reflects an ability to generate new clients and to develop and maintain existing law firm clients.
These two cross-currents in the law firm environment will likely continue. On the sidelines are the law schools. What should they be doing to better prepare their students to enter the practice of law and remain important to their law firms as they grow older? Sixty-five or 70 may be the new 50 or 55, but not as a general rule in law firms.
The first suggestion to the law schools is to consult your constituents. Ask hard questions of recent graduates and older graduates as to what law schools should be doing in these two areas. Ask the same questions of law firms. Law firms, students and law schools should all have a common objective.
Here is a stab at some suggestions for consideration:
• A two-year law degree rather than the existing three-year requirement. A not uncommon response by many law school graduates, when asked how they regard their third year in law school, is that it was a waste of time. The graduates feel they could have fared just as well in practice by having a two-year degree.
Imagine students saving one-third of the cost of law school and entering the job market one year earlier. This, arguably, would enable law students to enter the law firm market as interns or quasi-paid interns and thus spend a year getting experience before fully entering the billable law firm environment.
Bearing in mind that the larger law firms have their own continuing education programs, this solution seems eminently reasonable. The law schools could offer a three-year program for students who want broader subject matter as well as a two-year program. For a multitude of reasons, this is a nonstarter for law schools.
• A three-year degree program with the third year tied to a specialty (such as business school with a combined J.D.-MBA or health care, education or urban affairs specialty). Students could leave law school with an advanced degree in an area they would like to enter. Some law schools may already be offering this in one form or another, which seems like a good solution for making the third year more valuable.
• Offering courses in the third year of value to the students who will be entering into the practice of law. Courses that come to mind include ones involving teamwork in specific problem-solving; leadership training; marketing and business development; advanced accounting; and finance. These courses could be taught by professors in other parts of the university, adjunct professors or qualified faculty members of the law school.
• Offering courses taught by practitioners as part of a robust adjunct faculty. Many law schools have few faculty members who have had any experience working in law firms, let alone experience as partners in law firms. Having practitioners teach courses that can prepare students for practice makes eminent sense. It is understood that some law schools do follow this practice.
• Law schools working with law firms to provide internships at the law firms that would be monitored by the law schools as part of a third-year curriculum. This would have the advantage of law firms continuing the education and development of second-year law students they hire in their summer programs; bringing in students they would consider hiring after the completion of a third year; or merely providing a service to the broader community to have a well-educated lawyer work force that could hit the ground running, or at least be better prepared to practice than currently.
These suggestions are obviously by no means exhaustive. The fact remains that there are systemic problems that should be addressed by many of the law schools. The point of this article is to facilitate discussion of an issue that applies to some law schools more than others, and possibly to some not at all.
Sheldon M. Bonovitz is chairman emeritus of Duane Morris. He has taught at four law schools. He practices corporate law on a full-time basis in the firm’s international corporate practice group. The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s, and the observations are based on the general law school environment and not any law school or law firm with which the author has or has had an affiliation.