The law school class of 2009 did everything right. They went to college and did sufficiently well to be admitted to law school. They went to law school and did sufficiently well to graduate. They took the bar exam and did sufficiently well to pass and be admitted as lawyers. And for far too many, that’s where doing everything right came to a crashing halt.
There were no jobs. They were out their tuition, or accumulated significant debt. They were out years of their life. They were out their dream of practicing law. They graduated into the Great Recession and there was nothing they could do about it. It wasn’t their fault. It took years before the job market got better, but for the class of 2009, there was no salvation. They were lost and, eventually, mostly forgotten.
At the time, there were many cries for system change for graduating law students. A nationalized bar exam. Reducing the length of law school from three years to two. Reducing the number of law schools, so they weren’t cranking out more product than the market could absorb.
At the same time, the “access to justice” movement was born, recognizing that there was a substantial societal need for lawyers by people who couldn’t afford lawyers. It was a well-intended but naive movement, since lawyers still needed jobs and had to eat, so the aspiration of lawyers providing free legal services for the sake of society left a disconnect that its promoters, legal academics getting law school paychecks while traversing the nation for the sake of the poor, couldn’t manage to connect up the nasty details of lawyers earning a living with lawyers serving the needs of the poor.
The solution was a combination of lawyers giving freely of their time as if they were priests taking an oath of poverty, and as if their landlords didn’t want the rent paid, and the government covering the pay of lawyers representing the poor against the evil monied interests of society. Being a “public interest lawyer” became a goal of empathetic law students who were taught that in an adversarial system, only one side represented goodness and beauty, and it was their duty to be on that side.
Eventually, the voices of the class of 2009 faded into the background. Nothing really changed in how law schools were run, how lawyers were made and what became of them after they got their pat on the head and were sent out into the world. Some experiments were run, but failed. As the legal job market stabilized, people looked forward and forgot what was behind them. The class of 2009 was lost, which was terribly unfair, but there was nothing to be done for them and so they were largely forgotten. I remember them.
The class of 2020 is about to graduate. Their last classes will be taken on Zoom, their final exam graded pass/fail. But the July bar exams have been canceled, which means that they may well have done everything right and yet not be able to overcome the final hurdle before taking the oath of office. What becomes of them?
An online petition is calling on the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to extend a “one time, sui generis” diploma privilege to all graduates of ABA-accredited law schools registered for the July 2020 Bar Exam. Such an expanded privilege is one of several suggestions in this multi-author paper about what to do about the Bar Exam in the current circumstances.
“Multi-author paper” is putting it mildly.
The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic:
The Need for Immediate Action
Claudia Angelos, Sara J. Berman, Mary Lu Bilek, Carol L. Chomsky, Andrea A. Curcio, Marsha Griggs, Joan W. Howarth, Eileen Kaufman, Deborah Jones Merritt, Patricia E. Salkin, Judith Welch Wegner
The paper is an aggregation of ideas going back to the good old days of 2009, the ones either tried and failed or raised and forgotten. The crux of the paper is that there will be a desperate need for lawyers for those who can’t afford lawyers, and the loss of the July bar exam will have a deleterious effect on the class of 2020.
At the same time, it is essential to continue licensing new lawyers. Each year, more than 24,000 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools begin jobs that require bar admission. The legal system depends on this yearly influx to maintain client service. The COVID-19 crisis, moreover, will dramatically increase the need for legal services, especially among those who can least afford those services. We cannot reduce entry to the profession at a time when client demand will be at an all-time high.
Whether the assumptions are accurate is certainly subject to debate. There is always “demand,” but that doesn’t mean there’s money to pay for it. There are tons of lawyers already out there, and newly-minted lawyers aren’t exactly useful in terms of client service, most being walking malpractice machines for the first few years of practice.
Paul Horwitz provides a lengthy argument as to why this concern for the class of 2020 is misguided, the existence of law as a profession being about clients, not the job prospects of law students. He is, of course, right, and while the concerns expressed in the multi-author paper are tied up in a client-centric bow, it’s just for show to provide cover for reinventing the path to admission. Regardless of how new lawyers are minted, they’re still going to be lousy lawyers until they gain some seasoning.
But I remember what happened to the class of 2009, when circumstances that had nothing to do with them destroyed their prospects, killed their great expectations. Some would have been awful lawyers, but some might have been brilliant. No one will ever know because they never got the chance to prove their worth.
Will the cancellation of the July bar exam, and maybe the one after that, mean the class of 2020 won’t come online until the fresh-faced class of 2021 gets to take the bar as well? Will these law students who did everything right and aren’t responsible for COVID-19 be the class lost to the pandemic?
With Horwitz’s admonition that “it’s all about the clients” in mind, it would be awful to see the slaughter that happened to the class of 2009 happen again to the class of 2020. A pandemic may not be the time for a wholesale reinvention of a system, but it shouldn’t ruin the chances of another class of law students whose worst offense was the desire to become lawyers.
What one-time-only-sui-generis-best-method to serve the interests of clients can be debated, but debate it quickly, make a call even if it’s highly imperfect, but don’t burn another class of law students. The carnage of 2009 was awful and grossly unfair. If we take nothing else away from that fiasco, let it be that we not repeat the same mistake of destroying the futures of law students who did everything right.