The Future of the Law School

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.

The Socratic Method – the one that was made famous by John Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase – is also bunk. Most professors don’t do it well. And all it amounts to is asking pointed questions and hypotheticals about something that was just read, and will soon be forgotten.

The problem with the Law School – which has almost always been ineffective at training lawyers – is that it has a built in constituency – the law professor – who is going to fight like heck to keep his or her privileged position.

Law school has been experiencing a boom in the past 4 years, as routinely happens when the economy takes a dive. That’s because rather than go out into an uncertain job market, a lot of young recent college grads (and even mid-career professionals) decide to go to school in the hopes of improving their employability. (What they’re often doing is increasing their debt load, with no reasonable hope of paying those loans back. Hence the clamoring to make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy!)

But as the legal market continues to suffer, even in comparison to other parts of the economy, potential students are going to take other paths, and turn to other kinds of careers, even if those careers are less financially rewarding, because the sheer amount of money it takes to go to school for three years is too much to consider paying.

In recent conversations with fellow lawyers, I’ve heard about how even top law schools are having trouble placing their students. That puts the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which is a good law school, but not a great law school, in a very difficult position.

If the University of Virginia (a top 10 law school) has trouble placing one-third of its student class in top law firm positions, what does that mean for the UNC-CH which is not as prestigious and also which has the unfortunate situation of being in a state with only two moderate sized legal markets (Charlotte and Raleigh) and competing with other good law schools, including Duke (although Duke tends to send students out of state) and Wake Forest, as well as Campbell (which is an underrated school that trains its graduates better than UNC) and North Carolina Central (which is the best value for a legal education in the state and trains some excellent lawyers).

There are too many UNC Chapel Hill grads in North Carolina government to ever let the law school disappear entirely, but its privileged position will start to erode. As will the privileged position of many law schools.

So what will happen to the Law School? First, the smarter school deans will give up the pretense that law school is not a trade school. They will embrace the idea that the entire curriculum should be revamped to focus on the practical skills necessary to practice law.

Next law school will need to adjust, downward, tuition to reflect the true earning potential associated with the degree, and increased competition from alternative ways of learning how to practice law, and decreased demand as people realize that being a lawyer isn’t as financially rewarding as it once was.

Finally, efforts will be launched to change the way the legal profession is regulated. Most state bars require three years of legal education. This will come under assault as more and more people realize that this requirement is absurd on its face.

Raleigh criminal lawyer Damon Chetson helps people charged with serious felonies, misdemeanors, and drunk driving (DWI) in North Carolina. As a Raleigh criminal lawyer, he represents people in state and federal courts. Call (919) 352-9411.

Raleigh bankruptcy lawyer Damon Chetson also helps people facing mounting debt and harassing debt collectors file for bankruptcy under the United States Bankruptcy Code.

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