“Lean” has long been used as a slogan by firms who trumpet their staffing models as offering the best value for clients. A lean associate-to-partner ratio is presumably better than a doughy one. The client forgoes having a team of lawyers work on their case, in exchange for lower cost and a more direct approach.
In the academic world, lean has a far different, less favorable connotation. A new report indicating that law schools across the country but especially in New York are in “belt-tightening mode” (NYLJ, Oct. 2) is actually good news for the profession.
As applications have dropped (in the wake of the stagnant job market, reduced salaries and inability of graduates to find jobs), schools’ revenue streams have taken a hit. As expected, however, the top schools’ ranks have either held steady or shown slight increases while the mid-tier and lower-ranked schools are having trouble filling class sizes with enough students to cover their major expenses (read: full-time faculty).
Ironically, it is these same mid-tier and lower-ranked schools that will have the hardest time obtaining alumni donations, a major source of funds, in addition to tuition. Unemployed graduates typically do not have money to give; and, underemployed graduates are probably the second-most reluctant demographic when it comes to alumni donations, right after their out-of-work counterparts.
But the trend of what used to be unchecked proliferation of law school applicants (prior to 2008) appears to have slowed, and even reversed. Whatever the cause (whether it was the dismissal of the fraud lawsuits against law schools, or the mainstream media reports on the plight of the law-school-educated unemployed), the effect is that less students are applying to go through the rigorous process of becoming a lawyer; a process that has now much less reward and a ton more risk.
This thinning of the herd serves dual purposes: only those really motivated to endeavor to become attorneys will engage in the cost-benefit analysis before plunking down hundreds of thousands in tuition; consequently, fewer (presumably more qualified) graduates will be looking to fill the fewer available jobs once they graduate and pass the bar.
Since these lean times are not likely to be an isolated period (you cannot put the salary genie back in the bottle) the rush by law schools to “creatively” problem-solve is almost too appealing to pass up. But a fundamentally sound graduate, who knows the difference between a complaint, a petition, and a citation, is likely to find a job much quicker than one who spent their summer sitting in on international arbitrations. The Stones said it best—you can’t always get what you want.
Vesselin Mitev is the chief associate for litigation firm John Ray & Associates, with offices in Manhattan and Long Island.