The Law School Con
In a recent article, "The Law School Crisis," author Ben Taylor conveniently dismisses the entire law school reform movement with three simplistic points. Yet so incorrect were his assumptions and conclusions that the article must not go unanswered.
Taylor's first point, that reform advocates fail to place proper emphasis on the current economic slowdown, is incorrect. We are well aware that the weak economy affects opportunities for law graduates. Taylor misses the real issue: it's not that the economy slowed, but that the legal profession changed, structurally and permanently, as a result. In the recent downturn, the law firm model was shattered, not merely temporarily downsized. Clients discovered they could demand lower rates and higher efficiency as firms hustled for business, and firms no longer needed vast numbers of entry-level attorneys at indefensibly high salaries to perform expensive busywork. Firms axed attorneys ferociously, and as the economy rebounds anemically, there has been (and will be) no return to pre-crash hiring of permanent, expensive associate attorneys. Taylor wrongly assumes that clients will suddenly agree to again pay more for legal work that the downturn has shown can be done effectively at a lower cost, or will want to return to the inefficient practices of the past, where firms hired thousands of new graduates, all dead weight for their first few years of practice, trained on the client's dime.
The picture for smaller firms and solo practitioners is even worse. Their bread-and-butter clients realized they could skip the expensive lawyer route almost entirely. Wills, sales contracts, incorporation, and other routine business matters can be done for a fraction of the cost via DIY legal websites, more quickly and, on balance, as competently as if performed by an attorney, yet without the inconvenience of having to visit an attorney's office and pay hundreds or thousands of dollars. Clients who still insist on the services of a firm are in a position to shop around, pitting lawyer against lawyer, and with high levels of lawyer underemployment and unemployment, and vast pools of starvation-level solo practitioners, there is no shortage of attorneys who will undercut market rates -- rates that will never recover.
Taylor's second point -- that law school reform advocates "tend to focus on the youngest law graduates, who have only had a few years to find a respectable job ... [and] it takes time to build a legal career and to assemble a track record of solid work and experience at top firms" -- is specious if not laughable. Most reform advocates fully understand that finding a suitable job as a practicing lawyer takes time -- but more than that, it requires a start, which in turn usually requires a healthy dose of luck or family connections. The truth is that if one fails to find a good law job before or within a short time following graduation, the chance of ever finding such a position diminishes precipitously. If not hired within one year of graduating, the chance of ever finding any job practicing law falls close to zero: a brand-new graduating class, with twice as many new graduates as there are jobs, will enter the hiring process without the stigma of unemployed staleness. Why buy last year's model?
Of course looking at attorneys ten or twenty years out will reveal a rosy professional picture. Those are the ones, the few, who succeeded, not the average law graduate. Today, fifty percent will never practice law even in the short term, let alone as a career. Law is a profession as brutal as nature itself; for every successful long-term lawyer, there are dozens who fell by the wayside. Exactly how does Taylor see these unemployed graduates jumping from the early years of near-sweatshop "document review," unemployment, and underemployment into lucrative careers? Where are they acquiring the necessary grounding, the raw legal experience? Where are they networking and building (or inheriting) their books of business -- an absolute requirement for success as a lawyer in private practice, and perhaps the single most important factor in succeeding in the legal profession? The first few years of a legal career are exactly where our focus should lie, because that is where careers are made, or not.
His final point -- that law school reformers lump all law schools into one group, both good and bad -- is simply untrue, especially for serious critics. For example, in our recent book, Con Law: Avoiding...or Beating...the Scam of the Century, Thane Messinger and I take great care to explain (repeatedly) that we are writing about not the top ten law schools -- not even the top twenty-five law schools -- but rather the bottom hundred or so law schools that have dismal employment statistics and which rarely launch stellar legal careers (or, now, any legal careers at all). Even one of the most prominent, outspoken, and effective reform activists, Nando at the blog "Third Tier Reality," includes the following words on the front page of his site: "Do not attend unless ... you get into a top 8 law school," a statement that concedes that there are some good options in legal education. Another prominent critic of legal education, Professor Paul Campos, explains clearly in his book, Don't Go To Law School (Unless), that top law schools do provide career opportunities; low-ranked law schools are where the problems arise. We, as a movement, openly and widely acknowledge that attending a Harvard, a Yale, or another household-name school can and likely will provide access to a real legal career.
Advocates for law school reform aren't asking much. While meaningful reform would include the closure of underperforming law schools to reduce the grotesque oversupply of graduates, capping student loans for legal education to reduce costs, and removing bankruptcy protections for student lenders to "encourage" responsible student lending, a good start would be a conversation about law school -- and higher education as a whole -- that is honest and based upon reality and fact, rather than myth, outdated beliefs, and manipulated data that would make Wall Street blush. That alone, and the realization that law school is overpriced, underperforming, and outdated, and that the inside of today's legal profession is a far cry from the prestigious, stable, lucrative, and elite exterior it presents, will go a long way to forcing much-needed change -- change that law schools and the ABA continue to inexplicably* oppose.
(* Well, not really. The reason is money.)
Charles Cooper is the author, along with Thane Messinger, of Con Law: Avoiding...or Beating...the Scam of the Century (The Real Student's Guide to Law School and the Legal Profession), in addition to being the moderator at Nontradlaw.net, contributing writer at the blog "Outside the Law School Scam," and the author of Later-in-Life Lawyers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.