Dean Lawrence Mitchell Explains, And He’s Right (and very wrong)

While his op-ed in the New York Times didn’t go very well, Case Western Reserve Law School Dean Lawrence Mitchell wasn’t to be denied.  Maybe a bit of live explanation would help?  So Bloomberg Law’s Lee Pacchia interviewed the good dean.

While there is so much worthy of discussion packed into those incredibly monotonous 15 minutes of your life lost, the foremost takeaway is the good dean’s assertion that one of the core problems perceived by lesser minds may not, in fact, be real.

Paul Carron at  TaxProf noted:

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be 74,000 new lawyer jobs this decade, while American law schools will produce more than 400,000 graduates.

Yet the good dean says “It’s not clear to me there’s an oversupply problem at all.”

With so many legal needs of the poor going unmet, “finding different paths for people who truly want to be lawyers opens up all sorts of possibilities” for law graduates to find jobs, he maintains.

Mitchell is absolutely right. There is substantial unmet need in the United States.  And with that assertion, Dean Lawrence Mitchell announced that he would be donating his deanly salary, his assets and all his worldly possessions to lawyers filling that unmet need.  Nah. Only kidding.

The unmet need is real, and it’s hardly a joke. It’s the genesis of such futurist brainstorms as DIY lawyering and the embrace of less-than-competent representation.  Better bad legal help than nothing, some say.  Outside-the-box thinking has been a boon to the growth of ineffective counsel.  Dean Mitchell argues that this need can be filled by the 326,000 new lawyers with nothing but time on their hands.

To some extent, he’s correct. Sure, he discounts the lack of competency of fresh-from-law-school lawyers, but academics frequently overestimate the value of the education they impart to their indebted charges.  Sure, he has no empirical basis to claim a symmetry between the unmet need and the numbers of graduates law schools are cranking out.  Maybe the number is great than the need. Maybe less. We only know both exist, and whether they match up in any way remains a mystery.

But as Lee Pacchia put it, “Costco doesn’t take Karma Points, anymore?”

We tend to look at new lawyers and see two discrete costs, the amount they paid to law schools, such as Case Western Reserve, for their legal education, and the amount they would have made it they spent three years working instead of going to law school.  Dean Mitchell would chalk up these costs to a donation for the poor, as filling this unmet need for legal representation that would subsume the extra warm bodies doesn’t offer much of a way to compensate for the tuition bill or the lost earnings. 

Yet, there remains one additional factor that nobody seems willing to consider. Lawyers, even those who have banked some serious karma points by doing good for society, need to eat.  Some have children, and they get hungry every day.  The kids need shoes. They need iPhones too, but shoes come first. And a coat. It’s winter, and it’s cold outside. Don’t they get a coat?

In the legal Utopia where no oversupply of lawyers exists, Dean Mitchell would be king.  But the fact remains that Costco doesn’t take karma points. Neither does the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Not even Amazon.  It’s fine to take note of the demand for legal representation, but unless there is a way to pay for that demand, the supply side goes hungry.

At An Associate’s Mind, Keith Lee is less forgiving than I am:

I really don’t even know where to start. I fall on the optimistic end of the spectrum when looking at the law school disaster and I can’t even begin to understand or justify Dean Mitchell’s statement. Flat out, full stop, there is an oversupply of lawyers. To even begin to claim otherwise, especially when you’re a law school dean with intimate knowledge of the industry, is lying.

Not being disingenuous, or mistaken, or having a difference of opinion. L-Y-I-N-G.

While I understand his angst, I’m constrained to disagree. I doubt Dean Mitchell is lying.  It’s not an unreasonable conclusion, given that it’s fair to ascribe a certain degree of intelligence to a law school dean, and given that intelligence, he must surely know that his assertion is absurd. 

But Keith doesn’t take into account the myopia of legal academia, allowing even a smart guy like Dean Mitchell to fix his laser-like focus on a narrow issue to the exclusion of context.  There is need. There are lawyers. Bingo, problem solved. Keith sees things through the eyes of an effective lawyer, making it impossible to ignore the fact that Dean Mitchell’s assertion is absurd, leaving no option by to conclude he’s a liar. 

For a while now, I’ve been harping on the idea that none of these problems are likely to be well resolved if legal academia is left to its own devices. Law school exists only to supply the next generation of lawyers, who exist only to serve our clients.  Yet, there remains a divide that few care to notice.  Lawprofs want to handle their issues without outside interference, which is how we got into this mess in the first place. 

It may be because they don’t care for the “toxic tone” of trench lawyers or that we won’t be  sufficiently concerned with their salary, tenure, scholarship or workload issues.  After all, as Dean Mitchell notes, lawprofs could make oodles of money if they were working the libraries of Biglaw, though I have some doubts as to their making partner given their rainmaking skills. Seven and out, Dean.

And to be fair to the lawprofs, there aren’t too many lawyers in the trenches who give enough of a damn to care about any of this.  Aside from a handful of Biglaw guys who get paychecks and adore being on panels with scholars, trench lawyers are too busy representing clients or, if not,  issuing press releases.  And the one or two who do care and take the time to stay atop the problem don’t get asked to share the microphone.

Instead, we get to watch Lee Pacchia interview Dean Lawrence Mitchell and wonder why we bother trying, and what we possibly hope to gain by making enemies of lawprofs at every turn.  And yet we persist.  

9 thoughts on “Dean Lawrence Mitchell Explains, And He’s Right (and very wrong)

  1. John Burgess

    One of the bravest moves I’ve seen a university do was at Georgetown U in 1972. The school closed its Department of Astronomy that had been operational since the 1840s.

    The problem was that the school was producing more PhDs in Astronomy than there were jobs for astronomers in the entire US. The school believed — and acted upon the belief — that it was a disservice to its students to continue training them in an area in which there were simply not enough jobs.

    I do note that GU School of Law has not followed this ethic.

  2. SHG

    1972? A mere one year after they discontinued the blood-letting major?

    Seriously, how could GU even consider reducing law school class size when they produce such giants of the field as

  3. Jim Majkowski

    Perhaps more jobs like Ann Coulter’s (I’ll bet Michigan brags about having graduated her from its law school) and Nancy Grace’s will open up to receive the new grads.

  4. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    I would agree with a general statement that there are too few attorneys, with this qualification – there is not enough affordable AND/OR competent legal counsel available to the unwashed masses, if based on nothing more than the number of unrepresented parties to family law cases alone . . .

    In California, it is a fact that almost 80% of parties to a dissolution proceeding have NO attorney at all, mostly based on the parties’ ability to pay the fees associated with representation. And of the 20% of parties who have attorneys, many are underrepresented. I’ve personally witnessed now hundreds of lawyers perform in the courtroom and, IMO, more than half are less than adequate. Well over 60% of all married citizens will initiate or be drawn into a divorce in their lifetime, and if you count the children involved as parties too, probably greater than 80% of the total population . . .

    Further, I contend that, second only to being charged with a felony, there are no higher stakes – your right to be a parent, all your money and property, your constitutional rights to association, free speech, own firearms, equal protection, due process, and more – are all put into play to be stripped from one or more parties during the all-too-frequent divorce . . .

    And lest you think that my rant is not relevant to criminal law, think again – often divorces start with criminal allegations of domestic violence, child abuse, or other crimes, while frequently including quasi-criminal proceedings for contempt of court orders along the way. . .

  5. SHG

    They aren’t forced to go pro se because they smell funky. Some can’t afford a lawyer. Some are too cheap to pay. There are a ton of lawyers, some good and some not so good. Do the math.

  6. SHG

    She’s a regular at Burning Man. Always comes home with a new husband, too. Something about orgasmic marketing.

  7. Nigel Declan

    I tend to take Lee’s side in this (sorry, Scott). I can forgive dunces for saying truly dumb things because, in many cases, they not only lack the capacity to know that they are saying something so idiotic, but they lack the capacity to say something more intelligent. This man whom I presume to be reasonably intelligent decided to make his comments publicly, knowing that many people, including past and prospective law students, other legal academics and people who do, in fact, know about the current state of legal affairs would read them, and proceeded not just to make a patently absurd statement but to double down when he was not hailed for his brilliance the first time he got it wrong. To alter somewhat the old joke, he challenged the community to a battle of wits without bothering to arm himself, and still somehow believes he won the fight. He is at best willfully ignorant and very possibly patently lying to serve his own interests. It is abundantly obvious that this dean knows nothing about the legal profession and has no regard for the long-term well-being of his students.

    If I knew that any school, business or other enterprise into which I was going to invest significant time and/or money had in charge someone who is, at least publicly, this detached from reality, I would run the other way as fast as humanly possible and I can only hope that many prospective Case Western Reserve Law students realize this and find a better way/place to devote their efforts.

  8. Jordan Rushie

    This is one of those “I have too much to say about this video” so I’m going to make a few quick points…

    1. There is also no dispute that people in this country are lacking healthcare because they can’t afford it. Did we demand doctors and hospitals to render it for free? No, we decided to create a program where the government would pay for it. Why are legal services any different?

    2. You can tell this was written by someone who has never practiced actually trench law, for a few reasons. In a low bono or pro bono case, who pays things like filing fees, court reporters, deposition transcripts, investigators, parking, research costs, copying costs, and expert witnesses? In addition to, of course, bar dues, malpractice insurance, CLEs, and all the other expenses that are just part of being a lawyer. Are broke and unemployed lawyers with nothing but time on their hands? Litigation is expensive regardless of legal fees. It’s far worse than not being able to eat – baby lawyers with no money on the bank can’t afford to front costs for pro bono clients. Did you ever have to pay something out of pocket for your biglaw clients? Yeah, didn’t think so – and you get a paycheck each week!

    3. Want to truly gauge the market? Put an ad on Craigslist seeking a per diem attorney at $25 an hour. Watch your inbox become flooded with resumes – not just from recent grads but from a plethora of struggling lawyers. Many of whom have been out for awhile or are laid off biglaw.

    4. Most law students aren’t cut out for the practice of law anyway. Secondary school teachers you how to be an employee. College does the same. Law school does the same. Work hard, get good grades, get a good job. Then suddenly we expect law graduates to turn into business people overnight despite training that’s taught them the opposite.

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