NYT to Law Schools: Teach Harder!!

You’ve probably read the New York Times’ editorial about law schools, “Legal Education Reform,” in the Friday edition. It’s unimpressive, but to spare us both I’ll limit myself to one point.

After citing the economy, student loans, lawsuits, and irked Senators, it adds:

Yet, at the same time, more and more Americans find that they cannot afford any kind of legal help. Addressing these issues requires changing legal education and how the profession sees its responsibility to serve the public interest as well as clients … [S]ome law schools are trying to align what and how they teach to what legal practice now entails and what individuals and institutions need — like many more lawyers who can serve as advocates for the poor and middle class.

In other words, the Times is blaming law schools for failing to mint lawyers willing to affordably resolve poor people’s legal problems, which I suppose implies that they’re rejecting applicants who want to serve the poor in favor of greedy millenials who believe Congress/society/the Fed has some kind of responsibility to ensure full employment and widespread prosperity, and those public interest law society-types are all lying on their applications.

Maybe the problem with poor people unable to afford legal services is that they’re poor? Law schools are in need of reform, but the corps of attorneys specially trained to serve the needs of the poor envisioned by the Times isn’t going to work if they’ll be begging for cases and alms outside courthouses.



  1. Hi Matt,

    While the article being discussed certainly lacked direction and support for its vastly overgeneralized claims, (exactly how does reforming law schools to “teach useful legal ideas and skills in more effective ways” help “the profession sees its responsibility to serve the public interest as well as clients” anyhow?) your brief response to it provided some food for thought.

    Tangential Question:

    Could you elaborate a bit on what law schools are really looking for in student applications (supposedly they are not rejecting generous idealists)?

    Perhaps More Related Questions:

    I was also curious as to your scholarly opinion on 1.) whether lawyers do have an obligation to serve public interests (or however else one would phrase it) and impoverished citizens,

    and if not, 2.) who holds this obligation instead (and why),

    but if so, 2.) how lawyers may be better incentivized (spell check tells me this isn’t a word, so I must not be the sharpest tool in the shed — go easy on me please) to do so.

    … I guess we would presumably begin with making the overhead or getting a degree and malpractice insurance, etc. less expensive?

    Ultimately it seems that prime targets for injustice are the poor, and it would seem presumptive to say that there isn’t enough going wrong in the world where a lawyer could do some good (lots of work but perhaps at not so great profit). Statistics may or may not be capable of accurately judging the volume of work available to lawyers who feel underemployed, but I feel like you are better qualified than I am to describe the attempts made to resolve that more accurately.

    From experience trying to help other people get organized enough to actively seek legal help for a wide variety of reasons, out of about 50 or so contacts pulled from various sources (ombudsmen, yellow pages, search engines, etc.), 5 will respond to the initial e-mail/call. 2 of the 5 will be too late to get the business because the response was 2-4 weeks later than the other 3. And of the 3 who responded in a timely manner, perhaps 1 might be close enough geographically and have enough relevant experience/expertise to represent the potential client well (because we’ve all met at least one lawyer who sparks the thought, “How did that nutcase ever graduate with a law degree and pass the bar?”). This is even before any sort of dollar amount is discussed. Then, after dollars are discussed and agreements are signed, begins the very difficult process of keeping in touch with the selected attorney.

    As experience biases me, I’m hoping for something that might help better categorize and understand this phenomenon (fluke, common, or beside the point, etc.). Having been reading this blog off and on since July, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that people should be having entirely different experiences if there are so many lawyers looking for work. Somehow I would like to assume that the best and the brightest already understand basic concepts such as keeping their information updated if they want business or responding to business in a timely manner … even before their first day of class at law school. So where is the disconnect?

    Thanks in advance.

    — JC

    1. Greetings JC,

      As to your first question, what law schools are looking for in applicant pools: In the post, I was being sarcastic, so law schools do look for people who are civically engaged, if you will. I’m not an admissions expert, but the general consensus is that law schools really do prioritize academic ability over motivation. I believe public law schools tend to have a reputation for producing public sector-oriented law grads, but that’s just a hunch.

      Question 2: Do lawyers have a public interest duty, and if so how do we encourage them to take on that responsibility?

      You write, “[I]t seems that prime targets for injustice are the poor.” Poverty itself is injustice, and many more injustices flow from it. There are a few tacks one can take to your question. One, the professionalism argument, is to say that like a plumber solves pipe problems, an electrician to electrical ones, a lawyer solves problems of injustice. The rub, though, is that while we don’t feel an electrician has a duty to fix the wiring for those who can’t pay, we seem to think that lawyers have a duty to cure injustice more like how a doctor must cure the sick than fixing wiring for free. My response is that’s the problem of injustice and injury as opposed to faulty wiring: they’re considered more fundamental.

      A separate approach, I think, is to say this. From an institutionalist prospective, doctors create an artificial shortage of practitioners such that the majority is fairly well off. That makes it much easier for them to help the sick among the poor than it is for surplus lawyers to aid the legal problems of the poor. However, hospitals are funded so that they must give emergency care if needed. The doctors get paid regardless. Lawyers, however, do not. Thus, improving funding for legal aid services would be a much better solution to access to justice than implying that poor lawyers who don’t serve the poor are shirking their duties.

      Returning to the first point of poverty as injustice: it’s not the legal profession’s job to cure poverty. That job is in the government’s hands, and poverty is increasing. It’s as though a plague were spreading and people were shaming infected doctors for not aiding the sick when they’re running high fevers themselves. Sure the legal profession should take a stance on poverty, but that involves appearing politicized, which the profession wants the public to believe it’s not even though it is politicized.

      Question 3 (I infer): How can there be a surplus of attorneys but a shortage of conscientious ones, and why wouldn’t the surplus make lawyers more grateful for their clients?

      It may be an issue of quality control in the application process. It may be jaundiced lawyers. I think it’s important to recognize that the startup costs of opening and maintaining a viable practice early on are a lot higher than what they’re made out to be, and this goes beyond malpractice insurance, finding an office, etc. It’s a business, and the likelihood of failure makes the discount rate so high that it’s more economically viable for people to find subsistence-level work doing something else or doing temp work, etc. I get the sense that the public believes that once someone’s a lawyer, they can effortlessly start a practice, and all these underemployed graduates are selfishly choosing not to. That’s just not true. Experience plays a huge role, law is a specialized field, and one thing about people who apply to law school (tying to your first question) is that they are rarely the types of people who want to open their own businesses, otherwise they would’ve done so and not gone to law school.

      That’s a rambling answer, so don’t quote me on it, but I have work to do.


      (Also, the dictionary tells me “incentivize” is an Americanism, so I use it.)

  2. I have seen practicing lawyers take on entire cases – from initial consultations to final disposition – for $400. Do people want lawyers to work for a bag of Twinkies and a Coke?!

    The fact is that many people do not truly value low-income lawyers. I work with such clients, and they bristle the moment you tell them that they should hire a lawyer – even those who are willing to take cases for cheap.

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