When law students go to law school, they go to learn skills of advocacy, problem-solving and critical reasoning.
Instead, when law schools produce 45,000 new graduates every year but there are only expected to be 25,000 legal job openings each year through 2018 — as reported by law school professor Brian Tamanaha in his book, Failing Law Schools — the lessons being learned from legal education are not just the skills key to forming responsible lawyers. There are also lessons best learned by economics PhDs: market failure and supply-and-demand.
There’s also a lesson to be learned that the law is a profession, not a ticket to riches, some leaders of the Pennsylvania-area law schools said.
"If you’re simply searching around for a way to get rich, then this may not be the best profession for you," said Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh. "Because it’s impossible to guarantee if someone is going to become wealthy from this. … If you are looking to do this because you believe it’s important to serve others and contribute to society … then it’s a very rewarding life."
The law should lead to a sustainable middle-class lifestyle, but "there are other paths to wealth and riches. … The law is intended to be a livable calling, a job in which you do well, in which you do good on behalf of clients," said William M. Carter, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
The reasons for the problems in the legal educational marketplace are sundry.
There were the outsized salaries created by the rat race among the Am Law 100 law firms to attract the cream of the crop of first-year associates. Some clients no longer want to pay for the training of young law firm associates, telling their outside counsel to write off those hours. Some legal employers report dissatisfaction with the skill set that entry-level lawyers have garnered from their education.
During the Great Recession, many law school graduates have faced layoffs or not even being able to get their first job practicing law. At the same time, the average law school debt has reached six figures and student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy except for "undue hardship."
Technology has diminished the need for some kinds of legal labor, and there has been the "disaggregation of legal services from the traditional model of it all being provided by one law firm," Carter said.
Further, law schools went from being primarily regional to competing nationally through the rise of the US News & World Report rankings, said Linda L. Ammons, dean of Widener University School of Law, which has campuses in Harrisburg and Wilmington, Del.
But the message that there is trouble in the legal profession may have gotten out there. The number of law school applicants has fallen from 98,300 in the fall of 2003 to 68,000 in the fall of 2012, according to the Law School Admissions Council.
Yet, even while law-school applicants may be becoming more rational actors in the legal educational marketplace, law schools also are being forced to be "more responsive to the legal market than we were forced to be in the 20th century," JoAnne Epps, dean of Temple University Beasley School of Law, said. "But how we respond is still in process."
John Y. Gotanda, dean of Villanova University School of Law, said "the market is telling us we haven’t been providing the skills [entry-level lawyers] need to practice from day one. So, yes, we need to provide more and we’re working to provide innovative ways to do this."
Too Much for Two Years
While there is market pressure to lessen the costs of law school by shortening legal education to two or two-and-a-half years, limiting the time it takes but maintaining the same price does not address the complaints that legal education is too costly or that graduates do not have the skill sets that "the market might wish," Epps said.
"If the goal is both to reduce costs and increase employability, it’s not clear to me the market is clamoring for less well-trained lawyers," Carter said. "I’m not hearing, ‘Give your students less legal education.’ What I’m hearing is, ‘Give them a better legal education.’"
Law schools cannot equip young lawyers in three years with all of the skills they need, as well as the judgment to serve ably in the profession, Philip J. McConnaughay, dean of Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law, said.
The profession needs to live up to its responsibility to mentor young attorneys, McConnaughay and other law school deans said.
While law firms are going through their own "market correction" and their desire for law schools to do more in terms of training is appropriate, law schools are businesses, too, and not all students want to go to large law firms, Ammons said, so schools have to offer a "menu in terms of training."
And who are law school deans to tell someone he or she shouldn’t dream to be a lawyer, Ammons asked.
"Who knows where the next Sonia Sotomayor or the next Thurgood Marshall is going to come from?" Ammons asked. "My job as a law dean is to make opportunities."
If law school were reduced to two years, legal research, legal writing and clinical experiences would be cut out and those are the areas of education that employers are demanding, Gormley said.
If the question is whether law schools can graduate fully formed lawyers after three years of education, then the answer is probably no, Rayman L. Solomon, dean of Rutgers University School of Law-Camden, said. When doctors graduate medical school, the question is not whether they know enough science, but whether they have enough judgment to make life-and-death decisions, Solomon said, which is why there are rigorous residency programs.
As well, "you can’t just lop off a third of the bar exam," Gormley said.
What Lawyers Should Learn
At the same time that there is market pressure for law students to learn more practical skills, there is market pressure for students to get trained on soft skills like interpersonal relationships and time management, Pennsylvania-area law school deans said.
"If there is a criticism of legal education, it’s been too homogenous," said Michael A. Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "It’s that we haven’t offered different types of legal education focused on different types of experiences and different parts of society."
When Duquesne started a little more than 100 years ago, it started out as an evening program located above a bakery near the courthouse so that students working during the day could go to watch court proceedings, Gormley said. By the 1960s, most law schools were primarily educating students during the day, he said, but now the pendulum is swinging back to an emphasis on legal training.
Practical education through clinicals has grown more and more since the 1970s, but the clinical faculty previously did the practical education, Solomon said. "I think the move now and in the future probably is not to have this dichotomy between the theoretical courses or the doctrinal courses and the practical skills courses," he said. "What we’re trying to do is meld in a much more self-conscious way those two aspects so that they’re not opposites."
The reality is that the "pressure to create practice-ready lawyers creates a curriculum that’s expensive," said Roger J. Dennis, dean of Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law.
There may be more and more pressure to reduce the amount of undergraduate debt, he said, while Gormley said students would be better prepared doing three years of undergraduate education and three years of law school than four years of undergrad and two years of law school.
Practical education is surging, but the deans of Pennsylvania-area law schools said law students also must be taught the assets of professional responsibility and analytical reasoning.
The foundation of modern American society is the rule of law, and a law degree "is geared toward leadership in society," Fitts said. "Now is the best time to go to law school."
"We need every critical thinker we can possibly find with the complexity of the world today," Ammons said.
It is important to teach future lawyers who will step into a self-governing profession critical reasoning skills and a commitment to the "normative rule of law," Carter said.
Law schools face a tension between teaching a profession and being part of institutions devoted to the production of knowledge and enabling students to become better human beings by understanding the moral dimension of the world, Solomon said.
Law schools are in part an academy, and law professors also have a duty to scholarship and influencing the development of the law, Ammons said.
Carter, for one, does not think that legal employers want law schools to transform into trade schools educating "highly trained craftspeople" on mechanics rather than educating lawyers on fundamental skills and professional norms.
The philosophy of legal education is divided between two poles: "Either you need to teach doctrine or you teach how to read depositions," Carter said. "My position is we need to teach both."
Learning to assess both sides of an issue and to see both sides of a problem is not a natural talent, but the development of such analytical skills contributes to peaceful, intelligent solutions that have a lasting effect, McConnaughay said.
There is an international dimension to law practice and legal education with the globalization of the world economy, McConnaughay and Ammons said.
McConnaughay himself may be exemplifying the globalization of the practice of law, because he is leaving Penn State on August 1 to be the dean of Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen, China.
While there are 1.3 million lawyers in the United States for more than 315 million people, there are 175,000 attorneys in China for more than 1.3 billion people, McConnaughay said.
The legal services industry is going to grow "as the rule of law increasingly takes hold as the mechanism for international commerce," McConnaughay said. "That’s why it’s important for good law schools to add an international dimension that is significant and meaningful."
Even small-town lawyers might get involved with litigation with transnational aspects, Carter said.
Lawyers also need to learn to work across disciplines, McConnaughay said, whether it’s the intertwining of law and science in intellectual property or the science of DNA influencing the law of evidence.
Villanova’s Gotanda said the constant refrain he hears is that lawyers don’t just give legal advice. For businesses, lawyers are giving legal advice as well as helping clients with their business problems, Gotanda said. Further, research is showing lawyers need to have better writing skills and that they need better time management skills, Gotanda said.
Fitts echoed Gotanda that legal research and writing skills are very important.
Employers would like entry-level lawyers to have more experience interacting with clients, Fitts and Epps said.
Unlike medical schools with associated hospitals, law students do not have the same kind of natural opportunity to interact with a client base, Epps said. Law schools have created surrogates through clinics, externships and co-ops, but "what we’re doing is substituting for something that is best done in the real setting," Epps said.
Bar examiners also will have a huge role in shaping legal education, Dennis said. For example, the New York State Board of Law Examiners recently passed a rule stating that no credit toward law degrees may be earned for "distance education courses offered … such as online courses, Internet videos, videocassettes or discs."
"Are the bar examiners going to be for or against changes in legal education?" Dennis asked. "They have a big say in the future."
Fixing Another Market Failure?
Some have wondered if the market failure of the lack of work for law school graduates could be solved at the same time as the market failure of the lack of lawyers for middle America.
The 2010s are not the first time that the lack of work for lawyers stemming from corporations cutting back on their legal spending has led some to opine that it is only a matter of connecting lawyers to middle-class Americans with unmet legal needs, Solomon said.
During the Great Depression, there was a debate about whether there were too many lawyers, but scholars like Karl Nickerson Llewellyn argued that there was a maldistribution of lawyers, Solomon said.
One solution may be for law schools to form law firms, as Solomon’s cohort at Rutgers-Newark is proposing to do, Solomon said.
"We have lawyers with no clients and clients with no lawyers and it’s really money that divides the two groups," Epps said.
Yet, Epps questions whether law schools are equipped to make a dent in providing legal services to the working poor and the middle class. Members of the bar should not be relieved of their duty to provide those services pro bono, and inexperienced counsel might be foisted onto people who deserve experienced counsel, Epps said.
To solve this market failure, law schools must price their education so good lawyers can "emerge unsaddled with debt" and equipped to deliver more routine legal services that have "great meaning in the lives of middle-class citizens," McConnaughay said.
Class sizes must be shrunk so that seats are not filled just to fill seats, and funds must be allocated to scholarships to make legal education more affordable for students, including for public service work, Gormley said.
Ultimately, legal education has not really changed in 100 years, Gotanda said, but legal educators need to look at what the market is saying and change along with it.
It turns out that legal education does involve an education in the marketplace.
The author, a full-time staff writer for The Legal Intelligencer, graduated this year from Temple University Beasley School of Law.