Fixing Law Schools: No Lawyers Needed

As the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting concludes in New Orleans,  Orin Kerr reports back of an interesting panel called “Law Schools and Their Critics.”

The panel was moderated by Lauren Robel, the AALS President, and the panelists included Deborah Rhode of Stanford, Bill Henderson of Indiana, Gene Nichol of UNC, and Bryant Garth of Southwestern. This panel was only one of several at the AALS meeting on criticisms of law schools, and the panel was very well attended. My guess is that there were about 125-150 professors in the audience.

There is no issue more important to the continued vitality of the legal profession than whether law schools are succeeding in providing the quality of education at a reasonable cost to an appropriate number of students who can eventually fulfill the enormous responsibility of representing clients.  And so the lawprofs had a chat amongst themselves.

To their credit, there are many lawprofs who recognize a broad array of problems, including those that gave rise to unemployed recent graduates taking up the cause of transparency in employment numbers, as well as the long drift away from teaching students toward scholarship.  The list goes on, and has been discussed here and elsewhere at great length.

Even so, a panel consisting of four law professors discussing law schools and their critics astounds me. Sure, the discussion would be civil, and thus avoid the  toxic tone that academics can’t tolerate. But the insularity is incredible.  Four lawprofs talking to a room filled with lawprofs about critiquing the guys who sign their paychecks? Seriously?

Colorado lawprof Paul Campos has been writing for some time now at his blog called Inside the Law School Scam, a view for disaffected law students and grads into the workings of the legal academy.  For the most part, the blog has focused on what’s wrong with law school, which might have burned out relatively quickly if it were not for people like  Dean Lawrence Mitchell throwing fuel on the fire.  Even so, griping can’t continue forever, and so Campos, along with Deborah Jones Merritt of Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law, decided to look for answers.

From time to time, commenters ask for concrete proposals to change law schools–especially to reduce tuition costs. Professors and regulators are starting to ask the same question: What should we do about the problems confronting legal education?

On one level, the answers are easy: Lower tuition, reduce JD class size, embrace full transparency, and educate students effectively for the current workplace. But achieving those goals will require both discussion and specifics.

To support that discussion, I’m launching a new website called  Law School Cafe. The site is a partner site to  Law School Transparency, and  Kyle McEntee (LST’s Executive Director) is my co-moderator. We hope to have  LawProf as a frequent contributor–and you’ll have to put up with me continuing to contribute here. There’s still a lot to criticize in legal education, even as we try to formulate some solutions.

As much as griping is cathartic, and a necessary prelude to solving problems, since one has to know what problems exist before they can be fixed, there is an aspect to this approach that is just as disturbing as the AALS panel.  Notice anybody missing?

It’s understandable that LST has a deep interest in being a player in the future of law schools, given the huge number of unemployed, debt-laden graduates who believed (whether because they were misled or overly optimistic about their personal worth) that law school would provide them with a viable and fulfilling career.  They want a seat at the table, and they should have it.

But this new site, Law School Cafe, is a collaboration of those lawprofs who empathize with the students and the students themselves.  What’s missing here?  Already, there are ideas being floated such as this :

Emily Zimmerman, an associate professor at Drexel’s Earle Mack School of Law, proposes that law professors should fill “continuing practice experience” requirements. In an SSRN paper, Zimmerman notes that “many of the people who are entrusted with preparing students for law practice are people who may not actually have practiced law, who may only have practiced law for a short amount of time . . . , or who may not have practiced law recently.” (p. 7) Zimmerman acknowledges that these professors may “do an excellent job of helping students develop some of the skills that they will need to be successful lawyers.” But is that enough? Shouldn’t law schools strive to give students the best possible education for their role as lawyers? To accomplish that, Zimmerman argues that full-time faculty should enjoy more regular connection to the world of practice.

The solution?

Zimmerman suggests that professors devote 10-15 hours a year to “law practice.” To give professors more flexibility, and to allow more in-depth engagement, a “CPE” requirement might mandate 30-45 hours of practice every three years. The activities fulfilling this requirement could range from actual practice (for paying or pro bono clients) to shadowing active lawyers and participating in bar committee work. Professors without active licenses, including those without law degrees, could participate in some of the latter activities.

On what planet would devotion of 10-15 hours a year to “law practice,” including such taxing efforts as bar committee work, turn an unlicensed lawprof into a practicing lawyer?  Yet this is supposed to be a serious solution, perhaps even one to be negotiated by scholars who want nothing to do with teaching students, no less practicing law.

This is the sort of discussion happening far away from the eyes and ears of the practicing lawyers, and if there are reforms coming, provide the foundation for the future of the profession.  Is this sufficient to make new lawyers “client safe”?  Is this the magic bullet that will turn special snowflakes into hardcore advocates?

And apparently, no one cares whether practicing lawyers know about it or have any input into what will become of the legal profession.  It’s understandable that neither the lawprofs nor recent grads care whether we have a seat at the table, but is that fine with you too? 

15 thoughts on “Fixing Law Schools: No Lawyers Needed

  1. John Burgess

    How about a set rotation? Three years in the classroom to be followed by at least one year in the practice of law?

    I’m not sure which law firms would actually welcome untrained talent, but suspect it could be handled something like internships.

  2. SHG

    Even one year in practice doesn’t make a lawyer. Maybe ten? And then, only in the trenches, where they get their hands dirty?

  3. John Burgess

    I was thinking one year in the ‘trenches’ (however that’s managed) for every three in the classroom.

    Better — though also improbable — would be for trench lawyers to work one of every four years in the classroom.

    That old problem of being in two places — the classroom and the courtroom — at once raises its ugly head.

  4. SHG

    Putting trench lawyers in the classroom is like trying to teach a pig to sing. The scholars think we’re intellectually worthless and the kids will think we’re mean and unsupportive.

  5. Edward Wiest

    Law professors and law school deans and administrators(“successful” former law professors) effectively control the ABA committee which controls accreditation and access to the bar exam/bar admission for most new lawyers (outside California). I’m not holding my breath that these insiders (I don’t expect Paul Campos to get an invitation to membership) will start adding a course on listening to customers (e.g., clients) as part of the mandated curriculum in the near future.

  6. SHG

    Ironically, I’m concerned they will have such a course, taught by someone who has never been responsible for the life of a real client. Appearance without substance.

  7. John Neff

    If people say bad things about law schools other people might not give them money. Most law professors will not bite the hand that feeds them.

    I doubt very much that they will pay you to come and say bad thinks about legal education. Sorry but university presidents don’t like bad news.

  8. Keith Lee

    So far they seem to have their head’s firmly buried in the ground. And as been noted regularly, become skittish when people raise their voices or use mean words.

  9. SHG

    Appreciate the thought, but I don’t think they would let me in the room. Or the building. Or on the campus. And they obviously don’t appear to be interested in coming to my place.

  10. DJC

    First, I’m not sure it takes 10 years to be a “real” lawyer. I think it’s more a mindset. I’ve been practicing criminal law for just over 3 years, have about a dozen jury trials and many more bench trials and suppression motions. While I’d never presume at this point to sit on a panel, I’m definitely a real lawyer and I’m actually a better lawyer than “time in the trenches” would suggest given how many truly awful lawyers there are out there.

    But the idea that one can do this for 10 to 15 hours as year as a “hobby” completely misses the point of what it means to be a lawyer. You can’t dabble in this. It’s a job, a trade that you get better at over time.

    Law professors are in an odd position. They are terribly overpaid, compared to others in the academy. They aren’t lawyers. They have barely practiced law in most cases, and virtually none of them were committed enough or good enough to become partners.

    They also aren’t academics. Most of them don’t have PhDs. They never really mastered academic research. The write articles “reviewed” by 3rd year law students and published in these journals.

    It’s just an odd, pampered life they lead.

  11. SHG

    Three whole years? Wow! What a glowing self-assessment. I bet they’re already building the statue of you outside the courthouse, right?

  12. DJC

    What are you talking about? Statues on the steps to courthouses? That’d be bizarre, and only reserved for someone who has been on “60 Minutes”, “20/20”, and ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, Court TV and Fox.

    What were you doing the first 10 years of your practice? Not being a real lawyer?

  13. SHG

    First, if you want to respond to a comment, use that little blue “respond to this” link so it makes a tiny bit of sense. Second, have a sense of humor about yourself. You’re a bit immodest. If you’re half the lawyer you think you are, show it in your substance rather than proclaim your greatness.

    And third, I spent the first ten years doing the same thing I spent the next 20 years doing: learning and getting better. If you think you’re terrific at 3 year, see how you feel about yourself at 10. Then do it again at 20. Then you will begin to understand.

    You may very well be a “real lawyer,” but if you’ve got the chops, you will be a far better lawyer in a few years, and better still after that. At that point, you may be in a position to teach others how to be a real lawyer. The same goes for a lawprof.

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