Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Reflections

Why are law school enrollments declining?  Why are so many young people rejecting legal careers?

Dean Jeremy Paul views a significant part of the problem as being a change in society's view of lawyers.  He writes, "The reason to become a lawyer is because you love it. And one reason to love it is the thrill of solving problems, helping people work together, and contributing to a society in which justice is of preeminent value. Yet what do today's college students see in our culture as the accomplishments of the profession? Congress, our highest lawmaking body, has become tangled in partisan trench warfare."  (National Law Journal)  He adds, "Surely lawyers deserve credit for pushing the country to recognize the justice in same-sex marriage. But too much of what those considering a legal career see today does not communicate the opportunity the profession affords to steer society in good directions."

He concludes, "As long as law deans accept the conventional wisdom that our struggles are solely about money, legal education will never recover the national standing it deserves. Instead, legal educators and professional leaders must tackle directly public perceptions of the value lawyers add to everyday life. Twenty-first-century lawyers will write rules that enable people to work together to grow the economy, allocate resources more fairly, battle environmental threats and preserve notions of privacy in an Internet age. If we communicate clearly a vision of lawyers as the architects of a just society, plenty of aspiring lawyers will sign up for the ride."

To fix the law school enrollment problem, we also need to fix the public's perception of law schools.  While the law school scam blogs greatly exaggerate the failings of law schools, there is much truth in what they say.  Changing the public's perception of law schools will require more than glossy brochures, it will necessitate fundamental changes in how law schools are run.

First, law schools must become student-oriented.  Legal education exists for the students, not for universities, administrators, or professors.  While this reorientation may require some sacrifices by administrators and professors, being a law school administrator or professor can remain a rewarding career.  In fact, I would argue that being a law professor will be even more rewarding if law schools focus on educating students.  Helping someone learn is much more satisfying than publishing an esoteric article.

Second, law schools need to deal more honestly with their students.  While the law school transparency movement has made great strides in the last few years, many students and potential students have the perception that the main reason law schools exist is to get their tuition money even if the students have poor prospects for getting jobs.  Law schools, administrators, and law professors need to change this antagonistic view of law schools to one of cooperation between law schools and students.  Again, this must involve fundamental changes, not superficial alterations in image.

I believe that lawyers, law school administrators, and law professors are better deep down than they have acted over the last few years.  We need to re-examine ourselves and remember why we chose the law in the first place.   If we do not do this, the legal profession and law schools will continue to suffer.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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