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The Lure of Law School and Harsh Realities

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This week's Daily Record column is entitled "The Lure of Law School and Harsh Realities."

A pdf of the article can be found here and my past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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The Lure of Law School and Harsh Realities

Welcome to the hotel California

Such a lovely place…

Plenty of room at the hotel California

Any time of year, you can find it here…

 

Last thing I remember, I was

Running for the door

I had to find the passage back

To the place I was before

‘Relax,’ said the night man,

We are programmed to receive.

You can checkout any time you like, 

But you can never leave!

     --“Hotel California”--The Eagles.

Every year, a new crop of students enters law school, all fresh eyed and bushy tailed, envisioning a future chock full of exciting jury trials and lofty appellate arguments. Law schools lure them in with promises of easy money and prestige. Schools encourage students to believe that a high paying, fulfilling career in BigLaw is a slam dunk while simultaneously downplaying the declining job market and the formidable challenge of paying back student loans, which amount to, in many cases up to $100,000.

These loans pay for an education that many believe is inadequate. Ask just about any lawyer, and they’ll tell you that law school doesn’t teach us how to be lawyers it simply teaches us how to think like one. The end result is that most graduates are ill equipped to actually practice law. Many learn practical lawyering skills through whatever minimal on the job training is offered by their first legal employer.  The quality of the training varies and depends in large part on the employer’s priorities and resources.

The bottom line: the current legal education system is flawed and just about everyone, save most of the law schools, is frustrated and trying to bring about change.

In fact, this very issue was addressed at the American Bar Association’s Annual meeting earlier this month where the New York State Bar Association submitted a resolution urging the ABA to evaluate the current status of legal education in the United States. NYSBA president, Vincent Doyle, echoed the concerns of many lawyers and stressed that law students need to receive more practical training while in law school.

Other issues on the agenda at the ABA’s annual meeting were the problem of burgeoning student debt and job placement.  The ABA House of Delegates passed 2 resolutions designed to address these issues. One resolution was intended to assist graduates in managing their debt, while the other took law schools to task for reporting the employment data of graduates in a misleading manner. The latter resolution urged ABA-accredited law schools to differentiate between graduates who have obtained jobs within the legal profession from those who haven’t.

The ABA isn’t the only one focusing on these issues. Another very concerned segment: recent graduates themselves--disgruntled, jobless, buried in debt and armed with law degrees. What better way to alleviate their frustration and bring about change than to sue the law schools? Or at least, I assume that was the rationale of 3 recent New York Law School graduates who recently filed a $200 million class action against their alma mater, claiming that the law school "consigns the overwhelming majority of [students] to years of indentured servitude, saddling them with tens of thousands of dollars in crushing, non-dischargeable debt that will take literally decades to pay off.” In the Complaint, the plaintiffs claim that the law school misleads potential students by asserting that 90 – 95% of students are employed within 9 months of graduation when in fact, that number is closer to 50% if jobs that don’t require a law degree are excluded.

These recent developments are a sign that our legal education system is at a crossroads and it’s time for a change. It’s patently unfair to lure students into law schools based on misleading employment statistics and false promises of the easy life while charging exorbitant amounts of money for an antiquated, ineffective legal education system. This is especially so, since according to the U.S. Department of Labor, in May of 2008, the median annual wages of all wage-and-salaried lawyers were only $110,590—a far cry from the multi-million dollar salaries many students envision themselves earning as BigLaw partners.

Fundamental changes are needed to ensure that incoming students enter law school with their eyes wide open, fully equipped with hard and fast facts about their future careers, including their job placement prospects in the legal field and the risks and benefits of taking on large amounts of student debt.  Likewise, in exchange for their payment of ever-increasing law school tuition, law students should receive a useful, practical legal education that will equip them to practice law in the 21st century. 

Students learn all about fairness and equity in law school. Enough of the empty truisms, let’s put these principles to work. Instead of simply collecting their money and maintaining the status quo, give them a better future in return. It’s the right thing to do; it’s the just thing to do. So, let’s do it already. It’s time for a change.

Nicole Black is of counsel to Fiandach & Fiandach in Rochester. She co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise, and is currently writing a book about cloud computing for lawyers that will be published by the ABA in early 2011. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at nblack@nicoleblackesq.com.

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