Fix Law School Deans

Boston College Law School dean Vincent Rougeau, “Fix Law Schools,” in the Atlantic

As I wait for the 2013 Official Guide, the Atlantic runs a piece by Boston College Law School’s dean, Vincent Rougeau.

Legal education is in crisis. A primary reason is that the jobs and high pay that used to greet new attorneys at large firms are gone, wiped away by innovations such as software that takes seconds to do the document discovery that once occupied junior attorneys for scores of (billable) hours while they learned their profession.

Most law school graduates either choose not to work in Biglaw or never have the choice. Dean Rougeau’s “primary reason” is revisionism. This sets the tone for today’s frolic.

Some newly minted J.D.s have sought poetic justice—by suing their alma maters for inflating postgraduate employment data.

Condescension. The people suing their law schools believe they are seeking actual justice, as in, their law school took their debt dollars knowing full well that they wouldn’t be able to pay it down with the kinds of jobs and salaries they received and deliberately telling them otherwise.

Critics from within and without are rightly calling on law schools to provide transparent employment and salary data, to cut the cost of a legal education by trimming course requirements, and to elevate clinical and practical study over the theoretical. And yet these ideas fall short of the rethinking of legal education that the times demand.

Rethinking as in eliminating law school as a three-year post-baccalaureate exercise altogether? Bold words Dean, bold words.

To begin with, law schools need to do their best to turn away prospective students who are in it for the money. Would-be lawyers have to be taught to see the law not as a path to wealth, but as what it has been historically—a respectable middle-class profession. Too many of our current applicants do not see the law this way—and we need to bring them to clarity, even at the risk of driving them into M.B.A. or engineering programs.

Step one of Dean Rougeau’s vision of “rethinking” legal education is based on a flawed assumption: Demand for legal services is not determined by the character of law school applicants. Purity of heart does not create clients who are willing to pay lawyers for their services no matter how low their rates are. Moreover, Dean Rougeau gives us no reason to believe that lawyers who shave their heads and live in cardboard boxes begging for cases and alms on the courthouse steps will be more effective than those who want to receive a fair income for their labor.

Second, wasn’t the whole point of transparent salary and employment data based on the fact that law schools had this information but were manipulating it to entice people to apply? Also, above the dean wrote that legal education’s crisis was due to the loss of Biglaw jobs, now suddenly it’s in “middle-class profession” law. Third, if Dean Rougeau can read applicants’ minds, why doesn’t he just instruct his admissions departments to reject the selfish greedy ones?

Yet reject applicants Boston College does. So many, in fact, that although it regularly ranks well in U.S. News and World Report, it’s unusually unpopular with its remaining accepted applicants. Between 2004 and 2010, BC accepted an average of 19.5 percent of its full-time applicants, and of them, only one in five matriculated. Compared to other law schools along these criteria, Boston College is “scavenger” whose niche is drawing on the handful of applicants who couldn’t get into Harvard. Its selectivity regarding its applicants—to the point of knowing that only a fraction will ultimately show up in the fall—demonstrates that BC knows full well that its applicants see it as a school that can deliver solid employment contacts, albeit as the worst good law school they could get into. If Dean Rougeau were interested in ensuring those who apply to law school don’t expect anything more than a “middle-class profession” he is welcome to alter his school’s perception to that of a small practice pump’s, by cutting costs and faculty.

Finally, Boston College is also noteworthy for operating in one of the densest law school markets in the country. If Dean Rougeau is so concerned about law school graduates’ welfare, perhaps he should demand that unneeded Massachusetts law schools close. For instance, UMass recently received provisional ABA accreditation. It may be a public law school but perhaps it’s unnecessary?

[L]aw schools need to devise programs for new-lawyer training to replace those that the law firms have stopped underwriting. Here, the legal world should look to that hallmark of medical education—the hospital internship. Like medical interns, law interns would not expect to draw high salaries. Law practices could support such programs, which might replace the third year of law school, dramatically reducing tuition costs while giving graduates a chance to live the profession before determining a career path—perhaps unencumbered by a $100,000 debt.

Or BC could cut tuition and lay off excess faculty. Also, Medicare pays for doctors’ residencies. Who exactly will pay for new lawyer training? Firms and clients? There’s no significant demand for new lawyers as there are swarms of underemployed ones, so that’s out. Law schools won’t pay for it because they’re in the money-making business not lawyer-training charities. That leaves the students? Sure a legal residency might be cheaper than the third year of law school, but supply of better trained lawyers still does not create demand for legal services.

In short, deans interested in fixing law schools should start by fixing their assumptions.

2 comments

  1. Speaking of “dense law school markets,” you need to investigate what law schools are actually doing to contribute to their community. For example, what do they do to “earn” their tax exempt status? Many of them sit on valuable land which could be used for other meritorious purposes. In addition, what are they doing to serve their immediate communities (rather than nationwide — or international — public interest)?

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