Law schools must reform
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As major news outlets have documented for some time, the job market for recent law school graduates may be charitably described as dismal.
The graduates, however, are not the only ones facing a crisis. As more and more law students graduate with a diploma in one hand, significant student loan debt in the other and no true "law job" in the offing, law schools are forced to confront a deeply moral dilemma.
As a law professor and former law student, I recognize that, beyond tuition, students invest a deep faith in us that the enormous sacrifices they make to earn their degree will allow them to do the work of justice that drew them to the law in the first place. Law schools are morally obliged to justify that investment of faith.
We cannot face this crisis simply by blaming a weak economy. I suspect that hard times have merely given major legal employers an excuse to act on an instinct they've had for many years.
Law firms have always chaffed at the notion of hiring graduates and paying them substantial salaries while simultaneously teaching them (at the firm's expense) what they need to know to practice law. Unlike medical school graduates, who have one foot in the hospital and one in the classroom during much of their schooling, many law graduates need directions to find the courthouse. In tough economic times, firms have simply decided to get out of the business of providing post-graduate training for lawyers.
You would think that law schools would make fundamental changes to their programs in the wake of the job crisis, fearing that law degrees might someday be assessed like a Ph.D. in poetry -- soul-satisfying but potentially impractical. A few have responded dramatically, but most have held fast to the traditional law school model or made superficial changes. Why the resistance?
For many law schools, their institutional identity dictates that they be largely disconnected from the practice of law. This is done (I suppose) in the belief that we "in the academy" will thereby establish ourselves as an intellectual elite worthy of praise for the intricacy of our philosophical analysis.
Many of us write scholarly articles unconcerned that practicing lawyers never read them but in hopes that other professors will. We do not rank ourselves based upon the skill level of our graduates but support a national publication's ranking system that gives the highest single value (25 percent) to what other law schools think of our program.
To call us residents of an ivory tower may be giving us more credit than we deserve. Residents of ivory towers sometimes climb the parapet and get a glimpse of the outside world.
The legal profession allowed us to get away with this for a long time. But no more. Much like the secluded academy of philosophers who congratulated themselves upon reaching the ultimate definition of man as "a featherless biped," law schools must recognize that someone from the real world has just thrown a plucked chicken over the walls of the tower.
Being disconnected from the profession was wrong even in times when our graduates could find work regardless of how disconnected we were. But in this day and time, when many graduate in debt and have to scramble for the few positions available, staying disconnected in the face of their plight is a moral failing of the first order.
We will not fail them if we take up the challenge to teach more than just doctrine and the process of legal reasoning. We must teach the deeper and richer art of lawyering -- an integrated appreciation of the intellectual, practical and ethical dimensions in which law operates in real life.
Teaching this art requires considerable effort and a profound redefinition of our identity as institutions embedded in the legal profession in a way in which we can have the most impact: by sending into practice young lawyers ready to be champions of justice from day one of their careers.
By this we will prove ourselves worthy of the faith our students so want to invest in us. But we will do more. We will ultimately produce better lawyers.
Do not forget one key fact: The crisis in the law job market has not occurred because the world has miraculously become such an inherently just place that lawyers are no longer needed. The cries for justice remain as loud as ever. You can hear them no matter how high your ivory tower may rise.
The big question that remains, the moral question, is how will we answer those cries?
First Published January 4, 2011 12:00 am