Is Real Legal Education Reform Coming?
For the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about the current state of legal education. And not much of it has been positive. First, there’s the long-running criticism that law school does not do much to teach students about the actual practice of law. When pressed, most law professors and law school administrators will admit this, and claim that instead they teach students to “think like lawyers,” because there are so many different legal rules and details of practice that it would be impossible to provide students with any meaningful exposure to them in the three years of law school.
However, with the legal job market being incredibly competitive right now, law firms, corporations, and government agencies are far less inclined to hire new law school graduates, on whom they will have to spend a significant amount of time and money training, when there are thousands of experienced lawyers who have been laid off, who do not need nearly as much training as a recent graduate. This makes it that much harder for new law school grads to find a job.
On top of that, the state of the overall legal job market is, to put it bluntly, abysmal. While the economy is recovering (albeit slowly), and most employment sectors are gradually ramping up hiring, the legal job market, which was incredibly hard-hit by the 2008-2009 recession, has been slower to recover than most other sectors.
This has led to tens of thousands of law school graduates entering the workforce with student loan debt often reaching six figures and dim job prospects. Because most people go to law school with the expectation of being able to land a good job after they graduate, this has led to some jobless law school graduates ending up kind of, well, bitter.
Some of these students are focusing their energy into action, creating a movement to reform legal education. Their main grievances include skyrocketing law school tuition, a glut of law schools producing far more new lawyers every year than the job market can possibly absorb, and what they claim are misleading employment and salary statistics released by law schools. Many of these criticisms have expanded to cover higher education in general, as well as the fact that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
Because the American Bar Association is responsible for accrediting law schools in the United States, and can therefore exert large amounts of pressure on them, many people calling for the reform of legal education have targeted the ABA, rather than individual law schools – the idea being that the ABA could force the law schools to change their practices by changing its accreditation requirements.
The ABA has apparently been listening, and has created a list of proposed changes, such as releasing more detailed job and salary statistics each year. They have opened these proposed changes to public comment, and it appears that the general public, to the extent that it cares, is largely supportive of these measures.
However, the new rules are pretty watered-down, compared to what some people in the law school transparency movement would like to see. The rules, if adopted, would require law schools to place more information on their websites, giving prospective more information on job placement, bar passage rates, and retention rates on conditional scholarships, among a few others.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of a class-action lawsuit against several law schools brought by former students claiming that they were outright defrauded by the law schools they attended, by being presented with deliberately misleading employment and salary statistics.
This lawsuit was recently dismissed by a federal judge in New York, but the plaintiffs are appealing that decision, and the case is likely far from over.
While I think more transparency in law school admissions is certainly a good thing, and I actually think that the revisions proposed by the ABA could go much further than they do, I’m not sure how I feel about this lawsuit.
First of all, I have doubts that it will prevail. Proving that somebody engaged in deliberate fraud is difficult, especially with something like job statistics, because most schools count every graduate who has any type of job as “employed,” even if they have a law degree and are working in a coffee shop. This may be a little underhanded, but it’s technically accurate.
Second, the public’s perception of lawyers is not exactly positive. A common joke is that 90 percent of lawyers give a bad name to the other 10. When they hear that new lawyers are having trouble getting jobs, the reaction of a large sector of the public is probably going to be something like “I guess you should have learned how to do something useful. Cry me a river.”
Finally, the general public already views lawyers (and, by extension, lawyers in training) as litigious, but also as fairly intelligent and sophisticated. So, the argument is likely to go something like “back when you were a wannabe lawyer, you should have understood the risks of taking out thousands of dollars in student loans to get a degree that doesn’t guarantee a job.” While, in some cases, the fact that a plaintiff is a highly sophisticated individual (or, more often, corporation), will make it harder to prevail in a fraud case, on the grounds that they should have known better. However, it’s important to remember who these plaintiffs are: they’re recent law school graduates, arguing that they were defrauded before they attended a single day of law school classes. When they made the decision to go to law school, most of them were straight out of undergrad, and in their early to mid 20’s.
Think back to when you were about 22 years old. Do you think you were in a position to make perfectly intelligent and rational decisions when the ramifications of these decisions, whether positive or negative, might not be apparent until years, or even decades, in the future? Chances are, the answer is “no.”
So, what should be done about this? To be perfectly frank, I have no idea. The problems with law school are, in many ways, symptoms of a larger problem with higher education in general. As with any complex problem, there are no easy solutions. However, I think providing consumers (including consumers of educational services) with more information is probably a good start.