These are not the reforms you are looking for

The New York Times has recently become ground zero in the battle for the future of legal education.

In November, we were treated to the stunning revelation that the Dean of Case Western Law School thinks that law school is a good investment; in January, we heard from two more professors that it lasts too long and that schools should offer a two-year alternative. And these articles came on the heels of a series of other Times pieces critiquing legal education as it is practiced today. Even Tucker Max felt comfortable getting in on the fun.

Then again, I suppose Tucker Max always feels comfortable getting in on the fun.

As someone who attends law school but is clearly far from an expert on the ins and outs of legal education, I don’t really have anything exciting and original to say on the subject. But I do know enough to recognize one of the most disingenuous and self-serving pieces ever published in the New York Times when I see it. And that’s what this post is here to point out.

Specifically, To Practice Law, Apprentice First, a piece that correctly identifies some of the challenges facing modern legal education, but then proposes a solution that is almost breathtaking in convenience to its author, John J. Farmer, the Dean of Rutgers Law School:

The job market for law school graduates is collapsing; some schools have been misleading, or even fraudulent, in reporting admissions and employment data; tuition and student debt have reached record levels. Some question legal education itself: What is its mission? What value does it add?

And he even notes some interesting statistics I had yet to come across:

Consider this: Nearly half of those who graduated from law school in 2011 did not quickly find full-time, long-term work as lawyers. Yet the need for legal representation has never been greater. In New Jersey, where I teach law, 99 percent of the 172,000 defendants in landlord-tenant disputes last year lacked legal counsel.

Farmer points to the obvious reason for what amounts to a market failure — hiring a lawyer is expensive:

Lawyers cost too much in part because of rates established during the economic bubbles of the past 15 years. No less than in the dot-com or real-estate or derivatives markets, the cost of legal services became unsustainable. The recession worsened, but did not cause, the predicament now: a mountain of student debt and dearth of legal jobs, even as there is a crying need for legal services.

Legal education has not so much failed the profession as mirrored it. Law schools have trained students for a profession that has left a huge part of the public unable to afford representation — especially the middle class — and at a cost that perpetuates the problem.

But then he comes to his proposed solution, which you may have been able to guess from the title of his piece, To Practice Law, Apprentice First:

Let’s scrap this system. We need, at its entry level, the equivalent of a medical residency. Law school graduates would practice for two years or so, under experienced supervision, at reduced hourly rates; repaying their debts could be suspended, as it is for medical residents.

Law firms would be able to hire more lawyers, at the lower rates, and give talented graduates of less prestigious institutions a chance to shine. The firms, at the end of the residencies, could then select whom to keep. Even for those who don’t make the cut, the residency will have provided valuable experience. The law firms should be required, under this proposal, to offer stipends to help those residents who don’t make the cut but have debt burdens.

In summary, Farmer’s solution goes something like this: have recent graduates work at reduced rates for two years, and only then have them begin “real work” for real rates. If law firms don’t want to hire them, force them to pay a small stipend in compensation.

It’s hard not to notice tha Farmer’s solution is almost too convenient: He asks law firms to pay students to work in the public interest for two years, and then help pay off their debts if they decide not to make a permanent offer. And he asks students to tack an additional two years onto what is already, essentially, an apprenticeship — a hurdle law students must jump in exchange for the privilege of being admitted to the bar. And while some who could previously not afford legal representation will get it, 99 percent is a lot of ground to cover  — ground that could be better covered if Farmer’s proposal did something about the cost of legal services as a whole.

But Farmer doesn’t once suggest there is anything law schools can do to lessen the burden of attending them — which makes me wonder why the New York Times felt comfortable publishing a piece so blatantly attempting to evade responsibility.

A quick review of the necessity of legal education as I understand it: All over the world, students study law as part of their undergraduate education and are deemed capable of practicing after only four, sometimes three, years of schooling. In the United States, one must pursue tertiary education for a minimum of seven years before being considered ready to maybe stand before a judge and argue a case.

It seems like every law school professor I’ve encountered has managed to, at least once, gleefully point out that the legal bar functions as a cartel that allows its members to charge high rates for legal representation, and more importantly, allows law school professors to enjoy high salaries and enviable job security. Good for them, but it’s almost not worth mentioning that all the schooling necessary to join it costs a pretty — and increasingly shiny — penny. I know the statistics I’m about to cite are nothing like a revelation, but the cost of a legal education has increased three times faster than inflation over the past decade alone:

There has been an increase of 73 percent in private law school tuition figures from 2000 to 2010. The tuition was $21,790 in 2000 and hit $37,702 in 2010. For public law schools, their tuition increased by 150 percent over that same time period. In 2000, tuition at public law schools was at $7,790 and in 2010 tuition hit $20,000.

And it’s this part of the equation that’s wholly absent from Farmer’s analysis. Though he noted — way back at the beginning of his article, where you may have forgotten all about it — that legal tuition and student debt have reached record levels, the solution he proposes asks not what law schools can do for their students, but what students and firms can do for their law schools.

Now, I’m not arguing that pro bono work is a bad idea or that defendants in landlord-tenant disputes don’t deserve representation. But Farmer’s solution is a bandaid, asking students to defer two more years of earnings — on top of the seven+ they’ve already put in — to better demonstrate their skills and abilities to law firms, allowing those law firms to continue charging exorbitant rates to most prospective clients, and letting law schools get away with never-ending tuition increases — nevermind the fact that law schools are the ones producing those very graduates who are apparently not ready for the workplace and in dire need of debt relief.

Until there is some way to force law schools to take some responsibility for the ability of their graduates to generate an income commensurate with the cost of their tuition — by, for instance, tying debt payments to a specified percentage of post-graduation salary — they have very little incentive to implement any real change. I think Rutgers Dean John J. Farmer’s piece in the New York Times demonstrates that nicely.

And now, back to my legal education.


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