Guest Post: A Few Humble Suggestions to Burst Your Bubble

“Everitt Henry” inaugurates the first of what I hope are many guest posts.  Everitt declined to provide any doodles, much to my chagrin.  If you’d like to write for the blog, let me know.  Your content is your own, but I will do some minor proofreading because I’m nice.

A Few Humble Suggestions to Burst Your Bubble

On my first day of law school, I heard something that should have clued me in to the state of legal education today. Should have, I say, because at the time I was all too enthusiastic, too optimistic, and perhaps a bit too naïve to hear what was said in the way it deserved to be heard.

It was a hot August day outside when I sat down in a crowded, air-conditioned auditorium of bright-eyed future lawyers, fellow first-year law students eager to begin their studies and make their mark in the legal world. After the normal, cursory introductions, congratulations, and wishing us to be grateful we were not in medical school, a law professor approached the podium and gave, as part of his welcome speech the following comment:

“We used to say,” he started, “look to the person on your left. Look to the person on your right. One of you will not be here next year.”  He continued:

We don’t say that anymore. Law school is simply too expensive for us to fail that many of you.

At the time, I felt a bit of relief, because hey, that means I won’t fail out of law school. If I had thought about the statement a little longer, however, that relief would have much more easily turned to dread: that professor’s statement means no one will fail out of law school. The untouched gist of his statement was much more disappointing: “You want a law degree? Okay – here’s a law degree. After that you’re on your own.”

This was back in 2008 – before the market fell off a cliff and took tens of thousands of law jobs with it, many of which will not return.  Still, my law school has brought in record numbers of  budding, eager-eyed law students since then, despite the obviously decreased demand for their graduates’ services. And my law school has not been alone in escalating both student rolls and tuition amounts. The events of the past couple years have made one thing fairly clear to me…

… that the Gatekeeper has turned in his keys for a tollbooth.

When one stops to think about it – it’s quite an interesting transformation. The traditional role of the law school was to be a gatekeeper to an intrinsically challenging, yet rewarding profession: the profession of law. This meant bringing in qualified applicants, and certainly law schools still strive to do that. Those qualified applicants are equally willing to pay for the education and access to the legal profession.  But, being a gatekeeper also means weeding out the weak performers. If you can’t perform in law school, where the hypothetical cases are set up ripe for your analytical abilities, where everything takes place in a relatively risk-free environment (you’re not going to get disbarred or sued for your performance in class), then how are you going to perform in the real legal profession? If you can’t perform in law school, law schools should have the duty to inform you of that, and stop you from spending yourself into oblivion. It is here that many law schools have abdicated from their gatekeeping role, passing the real risk of loss onto the students and the legal market. In the process, law schools and their recruited classes grow in number, standards wane, and even the importance of the grading curve ultimately disappears. The evaluative role of the law school is, and will remain, under assault—and schools are more than content to leave their role as gatekeeper behind and erect themselves as  a tollbooth, nothing more than a cost that must be paid, in order to make an attempt at courting a legal career.

This fact has not been lost on legal employers, who have been frank that the quality of law school graduates has gone down, and they are no less willing to pick up the slack left by law schools unwilling to police their own student ranks. Instead, with the glut of lawyers on the market, legal employers can instead cut out most newly minted law students by simply requiring ‘experience,’ something no graduate has.

Some, including the host of this blog, have contended that these policies are leading to an education bubble that is about to burst, much akin to the housing bubble burst of 2008. Indeed, many vitriolic blog entries comparing law school to an ‘originate and sell’ type scheme are out there for individual consumption. I am more of the opinion that these commentators are partly correct—there is a bubble out there. The bubble, when it bursts, however, will only severely affect the lower ranked, newer law schools. Those schools hovering at the top—the Harvards and Yales of the world—will easily survive even the worst lawpocolypse. I certainly wouldn’t argue that this is just a bottleneck that will disappear with the economic rebound.

At the end of the day, bubble or no, when student default rates hit epidemic proportions, law schools will have a lot to answer for—and will suffer in reputation if not financially for their role in leading scads of bright, young, energetic students into crushing debt and a lack of job prospects. Indeed, law schools need to figure out a way to save themselves from their own doing. Here are a couple of humble suggestions from an innocent bystander:

1. Alliances and Mergers

The first problem law schools currently face is overpopulation. There are too many law schools, producing too many lawyers who then have nothing to do. Some small, lower level law school alliances or mergers alone would help to reduce the insane output of law graduates. Take Ohio as an example. Ohio currently has two law schools in Columbus, two in Cleveland, one in Cincinnati, one in Dayton, one in Toledo, one in Akron, and one in Ada. Does this one state really need nine law schools? Perhaps the Dayton, Toledo, Akron, and Ada law schools tout their own programs on learning practical law and some regional advantage – i.e. if you’re studying law in Akron, it will be easier to get a legal job around Akron.

Ironically, all of these small town schools could accomplish the same thing by merging into one law school, having a combined first-year curriculum on one campus (so all 1L’s have to study in, say, Ada for one year), and spread upper level students across Toledo, Dayton, Akron, and Ada as the job demand in each city rises and falls. The schools could work out a deal to share tuition proceeds of all students, AND, most importantly, their alumni might be willing to donate back to the school that has helped them secure a practical legal education, a regional advantage over the bigger schools in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, AND treated them like students they expected to see employed in three years.

What’s standing in the way of this? Small school ego, perhaps. Not wanting to shrink one’s law school faculty? Perhaps. The fact that the status quo still helps make these schools money? Probably.

But creating an alliance like the one described above not only makes you money (albeit less) in the short run, it also makes for happy alumni in the long run, and happy alumni give back to the schools they felt helped look after them.

2. Hyper-specialization

In the old days, the liberal arts degree graduate turned lawyer was an employable prize that could (probably) get the job done. For at least the last 20 years, that really hasn’t been the case. Law firms want specialized, capable people right off the bat. Tax firms prefer those with CPAs, IP firms prefer engineers—and with the glut of lawyers out there, these firms have the capacity to be that demanding in their hires.

Yet law schools still prefer a curriculum that relies on general education and “thinking like a lawyer.” Thinking like a lawyer isn’t anywhere near enough—and employers are making their voices loud and clear in this respect. With the legal field becoming hyper-specialized, a law school that does the same can enhance its competitiveness and its appearance to prospective students. Solid, specialized law schools could corral academics to produce much more significant work in their specialized subject areas, market and attract students with a legitimate interest in those areas (and thus more likely not only to stick around those three years, but also to excel, land jobs, and return money and prestige to the school), and when you’re a specialized law school, it’s easier to figure out where you can make cuts to make your specialized education more competitive per dollar. If you’re a law school specializing in business law, you won’t need ten criminal law professors on staff.

There’s plenty standing in the way of this, however, so I don’t predict law schools making this adaptation, which is unfortunate. Law school faculty not within their school’s specialization are not going to be happy, and there would be a big question out there as to what you do with already tenured professors. And then there’s the question of what do you do with students who come to school and want to switch specialization? My curt answer would be to enter into an alliance with a school of another specialization and allow for easy transfer procedures between schools… but that would require law schools to act and think cooperatively, a concept alien to most law schools seeking to game the US News & World Report rankings as best they can. Of course, the Harvards and Yales of the world are not going to go along with this plan at all, but that’s to be expected when they will feel the pressures of any law education bubble the least.

On a final note, I do have one suggestion for those of us who are not legal educational institutions: help get accurate information out there. The US News rankings are gamed by law schools nationwide, to the point where the ‘employed graduates’ statistics are simply unbelievable to anyone who has spent more than a year in law school.

Law School Transparency has invited law schools to give an accurate disclosure of employment numbers, almost all of which have refused to do so. That shouldn’t prevent the truth from getting out there, however. If more law students are willing to share what their legal education has provided for their future, the law graduate community can make a much more accurate resource depicting employment probabilities a J.D. holder actually has upon graduation. Here is my suggestion:

3.  Grassroots Law School Transparency

The major challenge in collecting data directly from graduates is verifying the data you get is actually from law students at specific institutions, from specific institutions, and is accurate. This is not impossible to achieve, however. Most law schools release a paper bound student directory of their current enrollment. I would gladly send my copy to anyone willing to collect various law school directories from various institutions over the last couple of years, email the names through their law school email accounts, and ask the following five questions:

  1. Are you currently employed?
  2. If yes, are you employed in the legal field? If not, in what field are you employed?
  3. Did you have this job before graduation? After?  Provide month/year of employment.
  4. Provide a rough estimate of your base salary.

That’s what it would really take to get the truth out there, and it is no small undertaking. Until then, though, things will keep moving ahead, but to all incoming law students I would say this: Look to the left of you, look to the right: one of you might have a job by the time you graduate.

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One Response

  1. With the legal field becoming hyper-specialized, a law school that does the same can enhance its competitiveness and its appearance to prospective students.

    However, there is a real problem with that model. I find it hard to think of any specialization taught by a law school that has any significant amount of transfer to legal practice, other than a tax LLM.

    I think it is a great idea, but … I just do not see any current law school capable of actually teaching real material.

    You need to remember, almost all law professors have at most a year or two of clerking, a year of law practice — they have, in reality and at most, the skill and legal background of a second or third year associate at a large law firm — basically nothing.

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