Proposal For New Law School Model Would Improve Students’ Employment Prospects, Reduce Student Debt, And Make For Better Equipped Lawyers

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article questioning the enormous loans many students need to get through law school, and how law schools game the school ratings. That’s news? Here is a letter to the editor I wrote today, suggesting a radical fix:

To the Editor:

“Is Law School a Losing Game?” begs the question: what do we do about the foolish amount of debt students must absorb to get through law school? The answer is: change the structure of law school and the requirements one must meet to practice law.

Law schools are ignoring the demands of lawyers’ clients ― lower the cost of your service. Most law firms have been busy trying to do that. Lawyers are struggling to deal with their labor costs, mostly because lawyers who just got their licenses have to figure out how to pay off student loans and law firms have to pay the new lawyers a sufficient amount to do so.

A dean of a Chicago law school recently told an alumni group that graduating students at that law school have an average $100,000 in school loans. That’s a lot less than the students you featured in your article, but still way too much for a novice who doesn’t add much value to the service lawyers give their clients. And clients have the final say.

Right now law firms are squeezed on both ends of the financial equation. Clients are unwilling to pay for new lawyers to learn how to practice law, and new lawyers require and demand more than law firms are willing to pay. The result is lots of new lawyers unable to meet the obligations of their school loans. Many are unemployable at the salaries they need to service student debt.

There is a way to fix the problem, but it will take courageous action by law schools, accrediting organizations, bar associations, law firms, and new lawyers. First we admit that for most lawyers grinding out three years of law school, supposedly to learn how to think like a lawyer (read: indoctrination), does no one any good. Students graduate still not knowing how to practice law; law firm-employers are frustrated by having to absorb more and more of new lawyers’ salaries; and clients are angry about paying what amounts to training costs and student debt for new lawyers.

Law school for students who want to practice law should be one calendar year. During that year, curriculum should focus on legal research and communication, and a fundamental core of study ― contract law, torts, property law, criminal law, procedure. Students can be given an option for an elective or two.

A mandatory apprenticeship at a law firm should follow graduation. That’s where new lawyers will learn how to practice anyway, not sitting in a classroom discussing cases that were decided decades ago in an obscure jurisdiction. Law firms should be allowed to pay their apprentices as much or as little as they want ― whatever the market will bear.

That approach will take the pressure off of students who have no way to get through three years of law school without mortgage-sized student loans, and they’ll get a more useful education. It will take a lot of pressure off of law firms that are absorbing a big chunk of new lawyer salaries into overhead. And it will go a long way toward relieving law firm clients of the financial burden of carrying new law firm lawyers.

Law schools especially won’t like this idea. They have institutionalized the three-year curriculum. Their income now depends on keeping students in classroom seats for three years. But law firm clients are changing their counsel-hiring models, and law firms are changing their business models to accommodate clients. It’s time for law schools to get the message, and share some of the financial pain the rest of the market has endured, and make some difficult changes, too.