The Future of the Law School

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I grew up in the 1980s when it seemed that everyone wanted to be a lawyer like the ones on LA Law. The 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (up until 2007) was the era of Big Law when the promise of a $100,000 to $160,000 salary was, it seemed, extended to anyone graduating from a top 20 school and to many people graduating from a top 50 law school with great grades and clerkships.

Even in previously bad economies – 1990 to 1992, 1998-2000 – the law profession seemed to survive, if not thrive. Hundreds of thousands of smart (and even not-so-smart) people were encouraged to become lawyers by a combination of outrageous salaries – in 2007, Cravath, one of the top corporate law firms in the country, offered bonuses of nearly $100,000 for top performing associates – federally subsidized student loans, the supposed security of a protected profession (with its bar exams), and putative prestige (see any John Grisham novel).

Of course, the truth of all that was always a little suspect. While a top 20 law grad back in the day could expect to earn a six-figure salary, unless he chose to go into public interest law, many graduates didn’t have the same luck. And while it’s really neat to think of yourself as a high minded constitutional litigator, or a trial lawyer from a Grisham novel, the practical, day-to-day experience of being a lawyer was always (and still is) grinding.

Moments of glory are few and far between. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the practice of criminal law and enjoy helping clients. And as my father might say, it’s better than digging a ditch. But the day-to-day practice of law is not out of a movie script. It involves helping people with a DWI, drug charge, or embezzlement or larceny. Only rarely are most lawyers involved in high profile murder trials involving movie stars!

The demand for law school and the government subsidization of school led to the growth of the school industry, aided by publications like U.S. News with its ludicrous school rankings. Schools became financial profit centers of universities (like successful sports programs) and in many cases were required to kick back money to the central university administration to help underwrite the rest of the less profitable parts of the university.

The costs were passed onto recent graduates and, ultimately, the legal consumer in the form of high legal fees, especially in corporate law.

Who benefited? One of the beneficiaries was the law school faculty. The typical faculty member at a decent law school has next to no practical experience. The person went to a top law school, practiced for a year or two, and then went out into the legal academy job market at the age of 28 or 29 to get a faculty job. A few law professors keep up their practical skills by performing pro bono legal work, or by consulting on the side.

Most law professors know precious little about what it means to be a lawyer, and they’re actually proud of this. That’s because the rest of the university has always looked at law schools (and business schools) as essentially trade schools. Since law professors don’t want to think they’re engaged in a massive Vocational Technical school, they try to distance themselves from the practice of law.

Second, the actual curriculum associated with law school has changed little from the 1930s, when it focused on 19th century common law concepts or ancient tort or property law ideas. These principles have very little to do with the basic way property, tort, or criminal law is practiced in modern America. Most of these laws are statutory, not common law, anyway.

As if to excuse their woefully inadequate ability to train lawyers, law professors and law school deans love to tell incoming students that they don’t teach you how to be a lawyer, they train you how to think like a lawyer through the Socratic Method.

Of course “thinking like a lawyer” is a silly concept. All it really means is thinking carefully about an issue. Yes, it requires a little bit of discipline. But it is not difficult, and does not require three years of school.

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