The Law Apprenticeship Scam

“It’s a cruel hoax. It’s such a waste of time for someone to spend three years in this program but not have anything at the end.”

So says Robert E. Glenn, president of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners. No, Glenn wasn’t talking about Liberty University’s 34.4 percent employment rate in full-time, long-term, bar-passage-required jobs for its class of 2013, which had an average debt level of $81,045 (only!). Rather he was referring to the low bar-passage rates of Virginia’s law readers, who along with their peers in other states are the subject of a New York Times article, “The Lawyer’s Apprentice.”

Citing data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which the Times deserves credit for researching, we learn that only 28 percent of apprentices passed the bar versus 73 percent of ABA law school graduates. This fact prompts the ABA’s Barry Courrier to declare:

“The A.B.A. takes the position that the most appropriate process for becoming a lawyer should include obtaining a J.D. degree from a law school approved by the A.B.A. and passing a bar examination,”

I find this response disappointing for a few reasons: One, even if these statistics are for first-time test-takers only, a 73 percent pass rate is lousy. Law schools should be held to higher standards for what they charge students.

Two, the article appears to tacitly accept the ABA’s position that we can’t have good lawyers without many years of law school (and probably college too). The elephant in this room is selection bias. The reason people go to law school rather than these apprenticeship programs is that law schools broker jobs to people who already do well on standardized tests, to wit, the LSAT. Certainly in the age of PAYE, someone who can crush the LSAT has much better odds of finding a good law job by going to law school than trying to find a lawyer who will train him or her. If anything, law school is a more reliable path to qualifying for the bar exam. Indeed, the article acknowledges that “the lack of class rankings put clerkships with judges and plum gigs at big firms out of reach” for law readers.

If you’re wondering why people who don’t do well on the LSAT go to law school instead of these programs, I give three responses. One, they aren’t widely known and have no advertising. Two, many law students still buy into the versatile JD myth. Three, the largest proportion of people opting out of law school are people who don’t do amazingly on the LSAT anyway. So there. (The Times says these programs are “underpopulated,” but given the effort the would-be apprentices must go through to get established, one might think the problem is that there really isn’t much demand for new lawyers.)

I acknowledge that many of the apprentices interviewed in the article are sincere in their desire to avoid debt and only want to do small practice work. If anything, bar authorities should make it easier for people to choose that route. Instead they offer a post hoc rationalization for credentialism in legal education.

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3 Responses

  1. Having graduated from law school and passed the bar, I can unequivocally state that the LSAT has little to do with law school, law school has little to do with taking/passing the bar, and the bar has nothing to do with practicing.

    I cannot think of a professor who agreed with the concept of the bar exam, or tailored their course/testing method to the bar exam. No. That’s why myself and classmates shelled out money for Barbri or other prep courses. What in god’s name did we suffer through three years for if we get to live in isolation for two months to learn how to take a test (and the bar exam does not measure legal acumen, but the ability to play the game.)

    The real problem with the ABA’s statement is this asinine belief that their antiquated education and testing adequately trains and vets aspiring attorneys.

  2. You LSAT score is irrelevant in predicting your success as an attorney. Law school teaches you to think like a lawyer to help you become a better attorney for your clients or employer. So the LSAT is irrelevant to properly weed out applicants for law school. But it remains a popular tool used improperly.

    Furthermore, if the LSAT score is so universally accepted to show your competence–and not just your possible IQ–then list your top score on your resume. See once-prospective employers and would-have-been clients laugh.

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