Thursday, July 31, 2014

Maybe the Problem is... Too Many Law Schools?

The New York Times has run some viewpoints on the idea of replacing part of a conventional legal education (three years of law school) with "legal apprenticeships". Some of the authors share concern about the high cost of a law degree, but no attention is paid to why that cost is so high (I'll give you a few hints: fabulous infrastructure, high administrator salaries, high law professor salaries, and low course loads for professors). Frankly, if you look at their core mission and core function, there is no need for law schools to be anywhere near as costly as they are.

From the other direction, there is concern that students will lose out on enlightening classroom discussions. I doubt that things have changed much since I was in law school, where professors were often heard to complain about apathy taking root in the second year of law school, and being firmly established by the third year such that it was difficult to get students to participate in classroom discussion. It wasn't just apathy, as some students are intimidated by classroom participation, some law professors are bullies and some law professors simply aren't any good at leading classroom discussions. Whatever the cause, after the coercion of the first year of law school, of being called upon and put under a very bright spotlight, many students did largely or completely withdraw from classroom discussions.

One contributor enthusiastically gushes over the glorious educational experience that is law school, never mind that practitioners often have a very different take on the benefits of law school education than law professors. Don't get me wrong, most practitioners appreciate the manner in which a good legal education can cause you to analyze issues and develop arguments, but there is much more to legal practice and law school has historically done a poor job of preparing law students for the actual practice of law.

I don't find the argument for apprenticeships to be particularly compelling, either. The critics question whether apprenticeships would be managed by appropriately competent, dedicated supervising attorneys. I've seen law firms whose approach to training new lawyers, fresh out of law school, is to hand them a bunch of case files and tell them to represent the associated clients, so yes, I think that's a big concern. I question where you could find enough spaces for these new apprentices to provide a meaningful number of openings for law students. I question whether they would provide decent compensation and reasonable hours, or if they would turn out to involve the type of exploitation that we've seen in nations that require "articling" for lawyers who want a bar admission -- long hours, little to no pay, but with the necessity of obtaining a position resulting fierce competition for any openings no matter how terrible the working conditions.

Thinking about some of the unpaid internships and exceedingly low paid associate positions I've seen advertised in recent years, it's difficult for me to believe that apprenticeships with private law firms will turn out to be a particularly valuable educational experience -- but what I would expect them to do is to reduce the number of jobs available for actual law school graduates. If you were to charge tuition for apprenticeships, funding them to the point that the apprentices could spend their time learning and studying rather than earning their keep through the mundane law firm tasks that they are likely to be assigned to perform, it's difficult to believe that they would cost less per year than law school.

The essays leave me not with the impression that we need or don't need apprenticeships. It leaves me with the impression that we need to reform legal education. Unfortunately, especially when I consider the manner in which the professors who oppose apprenticeships praise the current law school experience, I don't think that's at all likely to happen. More than that, if you want to solve the problem of there being too many law school graduates, far too many for the market to absorb, the first thing to do is reconsider the number of law schools, or at least the number of students they enroll -- but reduce those numbers and what will happen to those glorious buildings, glorious salaries, and gloriously low course loads?

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