Why Law Schools Are So Bad at Creating Lawyers (and How to Fix It)

If law firms want young hotshots who can walk off campus and onto a merger case, they'd better sit down with the nation's top law schools and explain that the days of on-the-job training are over.

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American law schools are suffering a bit of an image problem. Thanks to a determined group of writers known as "scam bloggers," it's now an open secret that many schools admit far more students than will ever be able to find jobs after graduation. These students often leave campus with six figures of debt and, as a New York Times article argued this weekend, no ability to actually practice law.

The piece, by David Segal, delves into an issue that for years has been accepted as a fundamental fact of life in the legal industry: Law schools teach students how to think like a lawyer, but not how to be one. It's the difference between being able to parse a 19th century decision on states' rights to regulate waterways and being able to walk a corporate client through a major merger. They're almost entirely different skill sets.

Until the recession, nobody treated that as a problem. But now, law firms are facing unprecedented challenges to their business models, and law school graduates are facing the worst job market in memory. A lot of people suddenly care what skills J.D.'s learn in class.

Yet, if law students aren't learning what they need in order to succeed as real live lawyers, it's not fair to lay all the blame on academia. Law firms have been guilty accomplices. And in the end, it's the firms who are going to need to force change.

How? It's time to stop hiring students from Harvard Law. Or at least threaten to.

WHAT THE RECESSION DID TO THE LAW FIRMS

First, it helps to understand how the system used to work, and why it's breaking down. In a way, we're seeing a story play out that has been repeated over and over since the 2008 financial crisis. When credit was cheap and corporate profits were enormous, it was easy to neglect structural problems in any number of industries. Now, those problems can't be ignored.

In the past, what a law school graduate did or didn't know about his profession wasn't particularly important. If he was smart and knew the fundamentals of legal research and writing, he was useful. That's because law firms had the luxury of charging their clients for time that was essentially spent teaching first and second year associates the basics of how to practice.

Now, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out in October, corporations are less and less willing to subsidize that on-the-job training. A survey of in-house legal counsel found that more than 20% of companies had started refusing to pay for work by first and second year attorneys on at least some matters. That number is likely to grow. When your legal department budget is getting squeezed, paying your law firm to train its employees just isn't much of a priority.

Unfortunately, that has ripple effects throughout the legal economy. For law firms, that shift in priorities has whittled down a significant source of profits. Some have responded with apprenticeship-like systems. But for most, it means they simply have less money to hire young associates (or, more accurately, less money to hire associates while paying out profits to partners). That pushes students who would have gone to firms into government and public interest jobs. In the meantime, J.D.'s who can't find any employment also don't have the wherewithal to open their own practice.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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