(I’m posting an op-ed that appeared in the Huffington Post on September 18, 2014. I promise that I will get off my butt and start blogging again in the near future.)
Law school was once considered a ticket to prestige, job security, and career satisfaction. Not anymore. According to a new analysis by the National Law Journal, applications to U.S. law schools have declined by more than 37 percent since 2010.
It’s easy to see why. Today’s law students face a contracting job market, massive student debt, stiff competition from abroad, and low job-satisfaction rates.
Law schools must rethink their approach. Like medical schools, they should offer specialized, practical training that ensures students are career-ready the day they graduate.
The nation’s current crop of aspiring attorneys has plenty to worry about. The average student at a private law school will graduate with about $125,000 of debt. The job market for new lawyers is worse than it’s been in two decades, according to a new report from the National Association for Law Placement. In fact, the employment rate for recent graduates has fallen for six straight years.
Making matters worse, most law students leave school ill-prepared for real-world work. For instance, a second-year law student I mentor loved interning at a technology company this summer. Yet she doesn’t think she’ll be able to get a job there, as her school doesn’t offer the specialized education she needs to even apply.
Her problem is hardly new. When I graduated from Santa Clara Law in 1984, I had no training in areas like intellectual property law, contract negotiation, or SEC filings. And I received no training that would help in the business world, like how to deal with HR disputes or handle basic accounting. I was, however, required to spend countless hours studying the intricacies of community property law, civil procedure, and countless other subjects that had little relevance to my chosen career.
Fortunately, I was able to learn on the job. But in today’s environment, most companies are reluctant to invest in the extensive training that even the most brilliant new lawyers require. Instead, many recent grads end up at established law firms, with the hopes of receiving more specialized training and pursuing their real interests once they’ve paid off their loans. Such transitions, however, are hard to pull off, because attorneys trained at large law firms often require retraining once they come in-house.
Compared to attorneys at big firms, in-house lawyers need to understand business basics, be comfortable with risk, and have strong communication skills. Elaborately-worded, five-page emails might be fine at a big law firm trying to cover its bases. But when you’re answering a legal question for a time-crunched CEO, brevity and clarity are far more important. The Digital Age has also hurt job prospects for recent U.S. law school graduates, as legal work has become increasingly portable. Today, companies are able to move work to more cost-effective locations. Some work can even be handled abroad.
Fortunately, law schools can address these challenges by adopting a more practical, career-specific approach to training. Consider the “ReInvent Law Laboratory” at Michigan State. The program was created, in part, to mix technology into the law school’s curriculum. Today, the Law Lab hosts conferences across the world that have been called “TED for lawyers.” The creators hope that by combining tech and law, lawyers will eventually revolutionize their services to better serve the public. At the University of Colorado, the law school offers a four-week Tech Lawyer Accelerator program. After the program ends, students spend a semester working for a startup. As with Northwestern University, the school is working to integrate law with business and technology.
A revamped American system might take its cue from medical schools. Under this model, second and third-year law students would choose a specialty track focused on classes relevant to working in-house, at a law firm, in the public sector, or at a nonprofit. Students would also spend time with a range of practicing lawyers, learning on-the-job in several subspecialties of their chosen field — similar to the rotations of a surgical resident. At the same time, law schools could offer classes in practical business skills like public speaking, corporate management, or even spreadsheet basics.
None of these proposals will be possible, of course, without dramatic reforms by the nation’s bar associations. Indeed, the bar examination’s emphasis on theoretical issues is a chief reason law schools fail to prepare students for the actual practice of law.
A legal-education overhaul of this sort would leave law students better equipped to realize their professional goals, while also making them far more attractive to potential employers. Until law schools and bar associations recognize the need for reform, legal education will remain a risky investment.