I graduated from law school at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1987. Thanks mostly to my parents and in-state tuition, but also due to part-time jobs I graduated debt free with a job. Tuition was $2,000 per year. Today it is almost $32,000 and forecasted to rise dramatically. Law students are graduating with between $100,000 and $200,000 of debt into a market with few jobs.
The system that trained me to be a real lawyer is largely gone. I left law school and joined a small four man firm. For four years I went to court two or three times a week on motions or small civil and criminal trials. My mentor in the firm kept a close eye on me, then became more a sounding board as I became competent not only in the courtroom, but about more practical things such as getting paid.
In the very top tier law firms this process continues much as before. But everywhere else entry level lawyers face an increasingly competitive market. Clients simply are unwilling to pay law firms for first to third year lawyers to learn on the client’s dime.
Contrary to the claims of some critics, the demand for trained and experienced lawyers remains vibrant in the era of Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act, and for the largely unrepresented poor and middle-class. What has changed is there is no demand for untrained and inexperienced law students.
The challenge is for law schools to match their supply to the actual demand.
Much of the current focus of reform is to provide more clinical opportunities during the second and third years of law school to work with real clients. Our new and innovative Dean at the University of Colorado has made these clinical programs a focal point of reform. And the data at the law school demonstrates that students with these experiences, particularly in the entrepreneurial clinic, have a much higher rate of employment. But, we need more radical reform.
The legal profession requires of law schools a third year of largely Socratic study. The fundamental organization of the law schools around a three year education and its cost structure is the problem. Both the legislatures and the courts in the licensing process must act to allow more radical reform.
During a law student’s first year he or she is taught to think analytically in the law, which requires a rewiring of his or her mental processes. During the second year the law student branches out into elective subjects often related to interests that become their career specialities. The third year is a repetitive waste at great cost.
The challenge is to convert the third year into a net income year for law students. They would attend no classes other than distance learning via new technology. This would allow them to continue their education from any place in the world.
That education in the third year would focus on counseling and mentoring, including how to work sixty to eighty hours in a healthy way. During their third year students would work full time in firms, courts, non-profits, or business at wages well below paralegals in their geographic market.
The goal would be to create a market for law students, while still demanding enormous sacrifice in hard work and living on a very modest income, and making that third year cost neutral. The schools would need significantly less faculty, which are the biggest cost drivers in a law school budget. Lower costs should result in very modest tuition for the third year of distance based learning.
I can hear the outcry from law professors around the country that they provide something special that technology and clinical work cannot provide. As someone who listened to newspapers and printers repeat the same mantra in the 1990s and 2000s, my response is “adapt or die”. The law schools have lost over a decade thinking they were somehow special and exempt from the forces of the Internet and globalization. The relentless drive of the modern world to attack costs and inefficiencies has defined law schools as expensive and inefficient.
And if schools are not allowed to adapt, expect the academic equivalent of bankruptcy. Expect universities to shut down an obsolete department to redeploy those funds into engineering, science, and business.
My impression of Justice Ginsburg’s “fireside chat” at CU’s Memorial Center in my next post.