Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Restoring Dignity To The Law - Those Entering Law School Part 2

In Part 1 we saluted the new blog Restoring Dignity To The Law and it's mission to restore dignity to the law.  We discussed some ideas about how to restore dignity to law students - and we present more below.

4) Require People To Get Some Exposure To Law Before Going To Law School
4.1) Another interesting aspect to give students the opportunity to sample life at a law firm before practicing law would be to require that a person going to law school complete a certain number of hours at a law firm - say, maybe 500 hours of work at a law firm.  For example, I don't think we would have an anti-trust implication if we just added the requirement that all potential law students must complete 500 hours work at a law firm prior to enrolling.  However, even if there was an issue, I think that we would probably be clear if we linked the 500 hours to loan availability  - that is, have your 500 hours before going to law school or no loans.  Again, as you can see, this is an attempt to give students more knowledge so that they can make better decisions and not go into law.

Where are the law students going to get this work experience?  Would law firms participate?  I think most would, especially if the ABA were to issue something saying no firm could be conflicted out based on one of these pre-law students.  Also, smaller firms might be glad for the low-cost labor (I would advocate paying the the pre-law students something nominal like $10/hour.)  If participation is a problem, the state supreme courts could just toss it on as another requirement - many already require CLE and pro-bono.  Maybe something like all law firms are required to provide an intership for each 10 lawyer-years of practice in the state.  For example, a solo would have to offer one once every ten years - a 10-person law firm would have to offer one every year - and a 100-person law firm would have to offer 10/year.

Think 500 is too much?  I could go shorter, but I want it to be enough for the students to take the blinders off - you tell me how long that would be.

Have the Supreme Courts (or the bar associations) of the state set up an exchange where lawyers can hire the interns.  If it's run by the state bar, it's not likely that there will be any funny business.

5) Treat Law Students Better
5.1) The author of the Dignity blog mentions the down side of the Socratic Method and argues for its removal.  I agree.  I think that one reason it has stuck around so long it that it is psychologically gratifying to the professor - they get their jollies.  In many cases it becomes less "do you know the law" and more "can you guess how I would interpret the law - and if you go another way, they you are wrong".  The Socratic method is an incredibly inefficient teaching method - and frankly you deserve a better, more efficient teaching method for your $40K/year.

5.2) Professors should have more respect for their law students.  For example, I don't like it when I hear law professors refer to their students as "those kids" - it's really not very respectful or dignified.  In fact it seems to clearly infantilize the law students - which seems the polar opposite of dignity.  How should professors teach students?  Professors should treat their students as if the professor were an outside training consultant hired by a corporation to teach the corporation's new hires (the law students).  In such a situation, the Professor would be motivated to treat students well and get good feedback because he would like to be hired again in the future.  Further, it shows law students just how little you care about their dignity when you repeatedly subject them to a horrible, demeaning professor just because that professor publishes a lot.  It clearly tells them that their dignity is worth less than a paper fewer than 100 people will likely ever read.

5.3) Add/increase the proportion of the US News ranking that is based on "dignity" or "student treatment".  Law schools have fairly clearly shown that they care more about their ranking than their student experience - because the ranking gets them money.  It's time to align the financial interest and include an expanded entry for student treatment in the US News ranking.

5.4) Better career services.  Career services has been pretty bad for decades - I know mine was. But a lot of it is not their fault - they are usually set up to fail.  For example, in an average class of 200 law students, there are going to be huge differences in what students want - and there will be huge differences in what various legal employers want to see.  If a career services person gives good advice for a non-profit job seeker, it may not be good advice for a biglaw job seeker - and vice versa.  Frankly, there are too many areas for the limited career services staff to keep up.  Usually law schools have about 1 full time career services staff person per about 100 law students - that's far, far too few.  Not to mention that many of the career services offices are run in a more "sedate" rather than "aggressive" manner - as befits the very low salaries that law schools usually pay for these positions - typically much less than professors.  Also, the turnover is usually tremendous.  When you have an understaffed office with people you pay very little, you will not be able to get good performance.  The law schools just don't give Career Services the resources that it needs.  Law schools have been able to reduce costs there, though, because placement has previously been so easy.  However, it is incredibly undignified to take $40K/year from a person and not give them all the help that you can in the job search.  Law schools - you CAN and SHOULD do BETTER.  Spend the money to invest in your students.  When a professor takes home $400K for writing papers and the top career services person takes home $80K, then it is clear to students what you value - and it is NOT their futures.

6) Teach Practical, Marketable Skills In Law School
6.1) Graduating someone with a JD degree who does not know how to perform services for clients for which he may be paid is insane, ridiculous, and - as some say with good cause - should be the basis of a cause of action for fraud against the law school.  Law schools need to provide lawyers with skills they can use and sell to clients at graduation.  Admittedly, this is difficult because the majority of law professors do not have such skills - many of them never practiced or practiced only a short while.

Frankly, law schools should follow the medical school model where the medical school is taught by practicing physicians.  Can you imagine a medical school churning out doctors that are only taught the "theory" of medicine?  That dares to say that its graduates can "learn surgery on the job"?  That dares to say that their purpose is to teach their students "how to think like a doctor" - not learn practical skills??  Utter bull flop.  Bovine scatology, as it were.  Law schools should be taught by those actually working in the field - every class - from Day 1.  Ivory tower academics with no legal experience should find something else to do - like go to work for a think-tank. 

Well, those are they ways that I can think of to increase the dignity for law students.  What do you think?  I'll address some other ways to increase dignity for those later in their careers in later posts.


  1. Managing Partner, #4 is right on the money.

    My thought would be to require a few years' exposure rather than a few hundred hours. The idea being that law school is the final step before practice, and students would likely return to work at their previous firms where they already know what the drill is.

    I also think we could expand the scope. For example, it stands to reason that a detective could make a decent criminal lawyer after a modest amount of legal training. This is another reason I advocate certification over degrees as I did in your previous post.

  2. Hi LSTB,
    Years of experience may very well be better - especially if the intent is to create a position that they can come back to. My initial proposal was more about just allowing them to see what the practice is really like before they blow $200K.

    Your detective example is also intriguing. It seems like maybe you are envisioning just a few additional classes. I like the focus, but I am worried about the scope. What do you think of a more practical first semester learning the basics of civil procedure, criminal law contract and torts from working attorneys and then having many certificate programs taught by working attorneys in their field? Effectively, the student would "major" in area of law after the first semester or year - and the "major" would be very well defined and may have a major-specific certification test?

  3. Hi - I finally got around to reading these two great posts.

    I think these are mostly good ideas - especially 1, 2, and 6. I think 4 is a great idea from a student standpoint (I worked in a law office prior to going and it helped me immensely to understand what I was getting into), however I don't think it would be much of a deterrent effect, as I think people who really want to go to law school and be a lawyer are going to go and be a lawyer regardless of what obstacles are put in the path.

    Regarding 5, I hate the USNWR and put little stock into them, but I do think law schools should be fostering a more ethically-sound and dignified environment. I'm happy you brought up medical schools, because in medical schools, as a practical matter, no one cares about GPA. Even though you have a bunch of type A personalities, they manage to have a mostly collegial environment despite having jerks for professors much of the time. I'm by no means an expert on medical school, but given the place of most doctors in society and their resulting social skills, I think the legal profession could learn quite a bit from medical schools.

    I am skeptical about capping law professor salaries or getting the government involved in a determination of who is "fit" for law school. I think if you published accurate salary information and put some more scrutiny in the loan process (get rid of automatic guarantees for people to go to Thomas Cooley or similar schools), the system would solve a lot of the ancillary problems.

    Regarding your comment above, I am wholeheartedly in favor of certification programs in specialties rather than a generalized degree (you know, like how doctors do it.) There is very little reason for a future criminal defense lawyer to sit through anything more than a cursory class in, say, property or the First Amendment. Or if someone wants to do wills and trusts, why should they have to sit through a class on federal courts? Yet many law schools require this sort of stuff.

    Some great comments, MP. I hadn't thought of some of these, and I certainly agree with most of them.

  4. Hi J-Dog,
    Thanks for the comment and (more importantly) the inspiration. We get caught up in so many other aspects of the law that we forget very fundamental principles like dignity. Thanks for reminding me about how important dignity really is.

  5. To answer your question, I'm not sure how much overlap there is between practice areas, and I'd like state bars to ask practitioners. The question is how much mere *familiarity* do practitioners need with other fields? It doesn't help that some fields require more breadth than others; for example, I recall a CLE on the interconnections between family and bankruptcy law. I also recall an amusing moment in class when my criminal law professor struggled to remember the elements of civil negligence. Clearly legal education must reflect the needs of the legal market.

    Lawyers of all stripes need to know some theory no matter what they do, especially constitutional law (and I might add some international and comparative law, but that's a personal bias).

    At bare minimum I think a basic first year that restructures courses would help greatly. Rather than torts, contracts, property, we have a Civil Law (theories of liability) course. Writing is important (though you should know that from college, or high school really). There should be a public law/civics course that teaches how the courts work, state, federal, municipal, and some local government law.

    Any coursework that leads to certification should be pretty efficient, and I'm openly in favor of self-study. I say this from experience--I passed the NY bar exam without taking a bar prep course. I like clear justifications for why lecture formats are better for training workers than self-teaching towards a test. If there isn't class discussion and the subject matter doesn't lend itself to entertainment, then it's no wonder faculty moan about students playing online poker in class.

    Regarding what you and J-Dog think about experience leading to an informed decision, my concern is more with at what point "we" need to decide what's best for people. That's another problem I have with law school transparency advocacy: when is it right to tell someone that he or she should not go and that a juris doctor is not a worthwhile investment, even with loan repayment options?

    Gah! I've rambled.

  6. Hi LTSB,
    You raise some interesting concerns. Here's my take. I like your idea of a basic first year, but I would emphasize writing. Many students are just not getting it beforehand - also legal writing is pretty different from creative writing that they may have done. I really like your idea about teaching students directly about how the courts work. I mention "court clerk" to some recent grads and they just give me a blank look.

    I also like more efficient course work, but I am skeptical on self-study for the majority of law students. Super-motivated ones like yourself will do just fine, obviously - passing the NY bar without the bar prep course is the modern day equivalent of the virgin birth!

    With regard to deciding what is best for people, I think that we have a responsibility to our young to make sure that they fully and completely understand the impact of their decisions before they make them. I also think that we have a responsibility as a society to see thay our tax dollars are well-spent, that they produce a return for those that we are taking them from. In this regard, I mean not just that the funds will be paid back (so that the next generation can use them) but that the funds increase the GDP for the country in order to make things better for everyone.

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