Evan Schaeffer, a lawyer and writer from Illinois, devotes most of his blogging energies to Notes from the (Legal) Underground.-Ed.
Consider the newly created law school graduate, entering the legal marketplace for the first time. He’s fragile, sensitive, easily startled; he’s as naked as a newborn baby. Sitting down in his new office for the first time, he looks around and sees nothing but “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” Despite a three year birthing process, he has only the foggiest notion of how to function as a real-life lawyer. He’d like to try to crawl, but he doesn’t know how. He’d like to wave his arms, to sit, to stand. He’d like to communicate. Yet each time he opens his mouth, he emits nothing but the legal equivalent of tiny little burps. Each of these utterances is greeted by his new nurturers with knowing smiles; every so often, his utterances are greeted with great peals of laughter.
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? Here we have someone who has just spent three tremendously difficult years to obtain a law degree. He enters the legal marketplace nearly broke, or even worse than broke; his head is filled with rules he doesn’t need; he’s unable to turn his law degree into money, except by joining a law firm. The failure of his law school to give him real-life, practical know-how has resulted in a complete dependence on others to help him grow into a lawyer. Wasn’t that what he was paying to learn?
I submit that something has gone horribly wrong with the delivery. But let’s abandon the metaphor. Assuming there is at least a little truth in these paragraphs, consider how outrageous it is. A failure on the part of law schools to impart practical legal knowledge to law students has created an over-dependence on law firms, the bigger the better. It’s nothing more than an economic reality: law school debt must be repaid; the larger the firm, the larger the salary. Besides, there aren’t a lot of options to law firms, since any option requiring real knowledge of the ins and outs of practical lawyering is off the table. (By practical lawyering, I mean knowing how to put an arm around a client and get him from Point A to Point B. Or to put it more crassly, knowing how to take a law license and turn it into cash.)
Law schools are justifiably renowned for teaching students to “spot issues” and “find the applicable legal rule.” But very rarely do law schools teach much about practical lawyering. Often the professors themselves don’t have the knowledge. Examples: How often do law students learn how issue-spotting and legal-rule-identifying might actually be used to help a living human being solve a legal problem? Or learn how to market one’s knowledge to get clients? Or how to identify and fill a niche? Or how to employ others to assist in the venture? Due to a failure to teach practical lawyering, a number of options are off the table at graduation. Few are brave enough these days to start a new firm from scratch—what used to be called “hanging out a shingle.” Many would like to work in-house at a corporation or join a small law firm that boasts greater freedom and flexibility than a large one, but these potential employers rightly balk at the thought of hiring “lawyers” whose education is not yet complete.
So that’s where we’re at: the law schools leave a huge chunk of a new lawyer’s education to the large law firms, which are economically structured to recoup the costs of completing the educational process for new law graduates. Is this such a bad thing? For many, yes. Some don’t have personalities suited to the regimented nature of law firm life. Others may not be strong enough to reject the “golden handcuffs” that the large firms invariably offer; knowing this in advance, a new graduate may desire to skip the big firm experience altogether to avoid the temptation. And what about the law school graduates who can’t land a job at all? For these unlucky citizens, law school is even a greater tragedy: they’ve obtained a law degree at great expense, but have nothing to do with it and no access to the second phase of their training.
Are there solutions to these problems? They begin with more practical, hands-on, real-life training for law students during law school. Not elective-type “fun” classes, but classes involving hard work and real practical experience with real clients and real lawyer mentors. A more radical solution would be to change the nature of the third year of law school altogether. Don’t many already consider it wasted? Turn the third year into an opportunity for a yearlong apprenticeship with actual lawyers under the umbrella of the law schools; the law schools would function in the role of ombudsman, facilitating the communication between the law students and their firms. (A few states offer avenues to legal practice through apprenticeships, but not always under the tutelage of law schools.)
Would practicing lawyers want to assist in training students who will possibly be competing with them in a year? In short, yes: they do it already every time they hire a new graduate. I think many lawyers would welcome a return to an apprenticeship-type system, either out of respect for the traditions of the profession or because having a law school apprentice would serve an important need at their firms. If this sort of thing works, it might even be possible to cut out the middleman altogether: law school for two years, plus a year-long apprenticeship, then the bar exam.
I’m aware that many law schools already recognize the value of hands-on legal experience. But more is needed, sooner rather than later.