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Law School & Jobs: Who’s on First?

Mark A. Nadeau Posted in Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers®, Informed Opinions

In Michigan, twelve graduates of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School filed a class action premised on the Consumer Protection Act and the common law, asserting the school misrepresented employment prospects for its graduates.1 The Sixth Circuit rejected the claim(s) affirming the district court view that the students could not bring claims under the Consumer Protection Act, as the Act only protects consumers and not law students who make a business decision to improve their credentials. See, MacDonald v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, 724 F.3d 654 (6th Cir. 2013).2

We all know the story here: law graduates are having difficulty getting jobs after spending a good chunk of money on tuition. Articles have been written in distinguished newspapers, it has been reported on television, and it is a common discussion in the inner circles of the Dean’s office at most law schools. In context, it presents a number of uncomfortable issues:

  • Academic institutions do not like to talk of it, but schooling of students is a business.  Revenue from tuition and other sources (alumni contributions or otherwise) is needed to pay for operational expenses, employee expenses (professors and staff), and capital expense for new equipment and buildings.
  • The “product” being turned out by the law schools is not selling. The vast majority of graduates struggle to find jobs. In sum, the “value” of the law degree is questioned.
  • The students are rarely in law school to “save the world”. Everyone, whether a law school graduate or not, would like to save the world. But, in truth, most law students are there on “business”, as the Sixth Circuit aptly observed. They want jobs, money, a better life.

So, what are we to do? The commentary runs across many boundaries and a lot of good ideas. Forgive me for the short synopsis of supposed cures that I provide here3:

  1. Shorten the time necessary to get a degree. [This is typically offered as a methodology to save on tuition expense. It is fraught with all sorts of problems].
  2. Teach smaller classes and provide “clinics”. [This is typically offered as a fix for poor law school credentials on entering classes, and the clinics are some nominal answer to the notion that law students cannot get hired without more “experience”.]
  3. Increase out-of-state recruitment and the advent of LLM programs. [This is typically suggested as one method for keeping the revenue stream full by achieving higher tuition payments than the local/regional economy supports].
  4. Eliminate tenured professors. [This is typically targeted at taking “cost” out of the system. It also theoretically removes the purely “academic” pursuit by professors and focuses on practical efforts to turn law school into a vocational experience].
  5. Change the nature of teaching and the programs taught. [This is offered to address two key issues: (a) the standard methodology of law school instruction is failing (i.e., case study books followed with Socratic questioning); and (b) whatever is being taught at law schools does not interest employers post-graduation, and, therefore, we must teach new subjects or revise courses to assure the buyer is interested in what is being sold].

Who’s on First? All of us. Moms and Dads. Students. Alumni. Accreditors. Professors. Staff. Employers (Private & Public). Our Legal System. Get the point? It is crowded out there on first base. Everyone has a theory and ground to stake out.

It is doubtful that the effort to shorten the academic cycle necessary to obtain a degree is the answer. It comes close to diminishing the overall perception of the degree, and exacerbating the ultimate problem law schools face, to wit: What the heck are you teaching? If you can do in two years what you used to do in three, are you really able to do so because of technology or is it an admission that the credentials of a law school graduate don’t really require as much time to obtain?4 This also does not answer in any respect the revenue question for law schools. Is this an admission that what is taught is not valuable? Really? Students and others already question the “value” of a law school degree. I submit it is for the wrong reasons.

Likewise, eliminating the academic pursuit, the view that law is an important historical, current, and future element to our society that requires deep thought, is also wrong-headed. Our history of legal issues, from centuries ago until the present day, is a fundamental fabric of our society. It is the need and ability to examine it, and discuss it, that distinguishes those nation-states where “consumers” or “citizens” are not allowed to ask questions and critique results in a legal system. We have our faults in the United States system of justice, and in lawyering, but let’s not throw it in the garbage.

Hopefully, number 5 in the list above caught your eye. Indeed, this is where we can and should make a difference and return real value to a law degree. Make your own decision about whether the legal market is contracting. I suggest to you that it is not. Rather, the call for sophisticated legal counsel is booming. But, don’t look in your local neighborhood. Look at everything in your garage and house: is there anything you actually use that does not touch international borders? Can you conceive of the need for savvy lawyers in this cross-cultural, cross-border, huge world of developing assets and oceans that are largely untapped?

What we need is more, not less. We need better-educated and better-trained law graduates. Can they really serve our nation and our business interests if they have merely gone to high school, college, and then to law school. Not likely. Rather, they need critical industry experience and cross-cultural training. Languages may return to the fore. Advocacy is no longer merely being good at “arguments around the dinner table”. Rather, do you understand and can you use electronics necessary to add flair and understanding to your presentation? Do you understand voice inflection and persuasion techniques? If you are destined for “deals”, do you have a dime’s worth of experience on the street, or working at the CFTC? Recruitment at law schools might change. If a school is trying to supply the best in Health Care Law, where do they find the candidate who can get a job following law school? Not from a person who has no medical, pharmacy, or hospital experience, right?5

So, then, how do we teach it better and to whom do we teach it? Ah, now you are on the right page…and this website is made for you!

Notes:

  1. If you want proof of the circular nature of the Universe, consider that I once took a law school Criminal Law class from Professor Thomas Cooley (the son) at the University of Pittsburgh. Consider this full disclosure . . . .
  2. Ask yourself if this merely reduces the case to an interpretation of State Law. When is a student a “consumer” and when is a student a “business person”?
  3. The synopsis is not intended to be “fair”. Ideas are missed and those identified may not be fulsome in the characterization of the issue. It is intended to spur discussion.
  4. The last time the legal profession tried this tactic, we went to “plain English” in our legal papers. While it has opened the door to new lawyers and the community now more readily understands what is being written, it has been a horrible marketing disaster. We eliminated the magic of Latin, and in so doing set aside centuries of effort by legal scholars and others to assure that solicitors, barristers, and lawyers were the only ones who understood this foreign language. How much do you think a client should pay to a lawyer in the following colloquy: Client: “Looks like they busted my contract.” Lawyer: “Yep,  looks like they busted your contract.”.
  5. On reflection, employers are reporting by their lack of interest in hiring law school graduates that a graduate is not an interesting candidate for most jobs.  The excuse of the “economic downturn” is not enough as hiring of law graduates had begun to wane in the five years before the crash (summer programs were restricted,  on campus recruiting was restricted, and hiring programs downsized).  And yet, the need for lawyers in their second through sixth year of practice has been and seems even now to be steady.   The gap from graduation to mid-level lawyer cannot be filed by the employers, as they have already demonstrated a lack of willingness.  This suggests (loudly) that something “more” is required to go from the current law school graduate to a full time job. You might also conclude that the minority who get good jobs following law school graduate already possess the something “more” that is in demand,  and law school likely did not supply it.
  • Law Student

    Mr. Nadeau,

    I have to respectfully ask why, in your list of possible solutions, you did not include the option of lowering the number of accredited schools–or graduating class sizes–and, thus, the number of yearly law school graduates. The Denver Bar Association recently published a news letter that included a startling statistic. It stated that over the next 7 years approximately 70,00 new law jobs would be created. It also stated that in each of the next 7 years the would be approximately 44,000 law school graduates. Even factoring a large number of retiring baby boomers the math simply does not add up. I do not think that better or different education is going to make a law degree valuable enough that more firms or companies are going to create new jobs for lawyers. I would contend that instead the ABA has simply accredited too many law schools. Or if you’d rather blame the law schools one could say that they have acted irresponsibly by trying to profit maximize and have large graduating classes rather than simply meet the demand of the market with smaller graduating classes. Simply put, it has been my observation that there are too many lawyers–namely recently graduated lawyers–not that lawyers do not have the skills and knowledge employers want.