Monday, November 15, 2010

Restoring Dignity To The Law - Those Entering Law School

A recent new blog entitled Restoring Dignity To The Law has dedicated itself to its titular mission of seeking to restore dignity to the law.  That's a really tall order.  I am reminded of the words of Daniel Burnham, one of the designers of Chicago - "Make no small plans, for they have not the power to stir men's blood." 

Like the author of the blog, I have noticed a significant decline in the dignity of various aspects of the practice of law over the last two decades.  It's actually kind of insidious - like a crumbling decay that just gradually goes on in the background and you really don't notice how bad it has gotten until someone calls your attention to it.

I have a few thoughts about restoring dignity that I will throw out - and I'll do it in stages so that the posts don't get too long.  For this first post, I'll talk about some ways to restore dignity to those entering (or considering) law school.

The current status of the law school value proposition is unacceptable.  Even based on the NALP's own data (which is self-reported by law schools and seems on the overly-optimistic side) less then 40% of new graduates from law school get a job that is acceptable to themLawyers are unable to have dignity when a large number of them are unable to find legal work.  Starving lawyers are not dignified - neither are those working at Starbucks.  Here are some proposals to counter this:

1) Transparency  - Fair Information
1.1) ABA appoints an independent body to collect full and fair law school statistics.
The ABA should appoint a body to collect statistics directly from law students - without the statistics being run through the filter of the law schools and being subject to "massaging".  Further, response to the survey should be a requirement to sit for the bar exam so that students can't be pressured by their law schools not to respond.  This addresses one of the basic factors that we need accurate information if we are going to take reasonable action.

2) Stop Wasting Taxpayer Money To Create a Bubble In The Legal Market
2.1) This is one of the aspects that I think is frankly ridiculous.  We need to remove the artificial stimulus of government loans (paid for by tax dollars) when we already have far too many law students than available jobs.  I did benefit from loans myself, but the employment situation was different then - and if the situation ever arose that we needed more lawyers, we could always stimulate the numbers by providing loans.

2.2) We want to match law school admissions to the actual number of available jobs, so that we don't have unemployed lawyers.  However, we have to be conscious of anti-trust concerns, so programs that involve the ABA just ordering the law schools to cut their admissions in half are suspect (and I really think that at this time a 50% reduction in the total number of law students would be a good thing.) 

However, one thing that would not appear to violate anti-trust is if the government only agreed to provide loans for a certain number of students per law school.  For example, if a typical law school usually enrolls 300, it would appear that the government could limit the total number of students that it would loan to to 150, for example.  The law school would be free to enroll extra people and either give them a free ride or the extra people would pay their own way.  In a larger sense, I think that it is not only reasonable for the government to limit loans in this fashion, but that responsible management of taxpayer dollars should require that those dollars be invested with a reasonable expectation of return - and with the legal market the way it is, that is not the case.

Another suggestion would be to have the government only give loans to the number of students matching the number of expected career openings - or 20% less than the number of openings considering some people will go to law school on their trust funds - we all saw them.

My thinking would be that anything that turns down the law student loan spigot would help reduce attendance and would therefore help match attendance to available opportunities - we can always increase the loan assistance later if the legal profession ever booms. 

3) Limit What Law Schools Can Do With Federal Loan Dollars
3.1) Another thing that might help would be if law schools were required to spend all of the money that they take in on law school operations.  That is, the law school is not allowed to be a cash cow to fund other departments of a university.  We can also set limitations along the lines of no more than 10% of funds can be used for capital expenditures - so that they don't just go on a building spree.  This may not decrease the total number of lawyers, but it would at least assure that law students get value for their money instead of just being used. 

3.2) We may also want to impose a cap on law professor salary as a condition of the law school receiving loans.  For example, a cap of $100K for professors and $125K for deans would seem to be pretty reasonable - especially because we are typically talking about people that have little-to-no experience in the actual practice of law and most of whom would be un-hirable in the real world.  This would not implicate an anti-trust concern - the government can impose whatever conditions it wants as a pre-requisite to an organization getting the loan dollars.

This is just the tip of the iceberg - I'll have more in a later post.


  1. Interesting thoughts.

    I like the idea of requiring students to report their stats directly rather than through their law schools. Then again, transparency's purpose is to tell us what the value of a law degree is--not what it pays in the first year out of law school. If there's a high attrition rate in better-paying jobs, that wouldn't appear in the data collected.

    As to the oversupply problem and the tuition bubble, I think we need to revise the assumption that one can choose law practice as a first career. I'm also in favor of "fragmenting" the profession based on certifications for specific practice areas rather than one single degree and license. I think these two requirements: experience + certification, would give us a legal profession that fits the market's needs.

    Problem is I don't think state bars want to ditch bar exams that test M&A types on all the different ways to terminate an easement.

  2. Hi LSTB,
    Thanks for the comments! Your comment about fragmenting/segmenting the profession is interesting. I think you are suggesting, and I agree, that the use of the current bar exam and its coverage no longer reflects the reality of law practice - and I would agree. The bar exam has general questions in many areas and seems to pre-suppose that lawyers taking the exam will be practicing much like they did 100 years ago in that one lawyer would do torts, contracts, property and other areas. That's just not reality today. Most lawyers specialize rather quickly. It also ignores many areas of law - like IP. If we establish more area-specific certifications, then law schools might respond by teaching students what they need to know for the area-specific certification - or else risk the publication of a low "pass rate". Seems like an idea worth exploring.