Friday, April 29, 2011
Other than AT&T v. Concepcion (which may or may not really be about contracts), it has been a pretty slow news week for the blog. While most people were focused on a birth certificate and/or a royal wedding, this important article about law student employment rates was published in The New Republic.
Prof. Paul Campos (Colorado) isn't a contractsprof, but he was nevertheless dead-on in exposing the smoke and mirrors that law schools use in reporting inflated employment numbers. I am sure that this is not news to most of us on law school faculties. Though, Prof. Campos summed up nicely something I have been struggling with lately:
If you’re a law professor and you want to get depressed, try to figure out how many of your recent graduates have real legal jobs that pay enough to justify the tuition that funds your salary, and also involve doing the kind of work they wanted to do when they went to law school.
This has given me the blues. It nags at me. Law schools are pumping out too many lawyers. And the ABA keeps approving more law schools. And tuition keeps increasing, entirely out of pace with inflation and stagnant/declining salaries. With law school applications down significantly, it may just be that the law school bubble has burst.
The legal market has changed. It doesn't take any special clairvoyance to predict that law schools will change too. They have to. While I definitely would not decline a raise, law school professor salaries may be too high and this market is an opportunity for correction. And, while I love contract theory as much as the next guy reading this blog, the academy has overvalued lofty, disconnected, highly theoretical scholarship that is of little use to the practice of law (and arguably comes with a very high price tag). This is the currency in academia but a joke to practitioners (which, once they hopefully find a job, our students will become). (And I say this even though I am just weeks away from my tenure vote with a file full of scholarship that just might fit this harsh description).
To serve our students and the bar, the academy needs to be reconnected to the actual practice of law. For so many years, I have heard about applying the medical school model to law schools. I am not an expert on this, but at least anecdotally, I have heard that most medical and dental school professors practice a few days a week. I think this could be the future of law schools. I am not suggesting that law schools should or will staff classrooms entirely with adjuncts (though, this is the trend in academia generally). This is an opportunity for law schools to hire full-time, dedicated teachers who also spend some time "in the field" (whether in law school clinics or outside the school). Law schools could, thus, pay professors less and take some of the tuition burden off of the students. Faculty scholarship would likely decline in quantity but would likely increase in its actual contribution beyond the ivory tower. It would likely be more grounded in practice, and so would the classroom discussion.
In that connection, for example, 3 out of 4 dental school graduates are self-employed in solo practices. There has been a lot of discussion lately about the values (and burdens) of solo and small firm law practice. In this market, I have seen this type of practice regain a dignity that may have been lost because it was too often (incorrectly) seen as a default for those graduates who could not get big law firm, public interest or government jobs.
Law appears to be returning to a "small" model, which gives attorneys more control over their work/workload ("work life balance," which is coincidentally of higher priority to Gen Y) and also makes legal services more affordable for the clients they serve. Like so many business models that looked to get bigger, bigger, bigger..., we have seen that the "big law" firm may not be a sustainable model. (An analogy to industrial farming comes to mind, but I digress). And, even if "big law" is sustainable, it is not a long-term employment situation for most young lawyers who land jobs there.
So, law schools need to ask themselves: how can we graduate students who are in a position to employ themselves (if they so choose) within 3 years of graduation? How can we do this at a lower cost to the students?
Depressing, maybe. But, I had a boss once who would have called it "an action opportunity."
[Meredith R. Miller]