Ideas 2012 July/August 2012

Fix Law Schools

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Legal education is in crisis. A primary reason is that the jobs and high pay that used to greet new attorneys at large firms are gone, wiped away by innovations such as software that takes seconds to do the document discovery that once occupied junior attorneys for scores of (billable) hours while they learned their profession. Too many recent graduates are therefore laden with tuition debt that their salary—if they enjoy one at all—cannot support. (Elite private law-school education carries a tab of $150,000 or so, not including living expenses.) Some newly minted J.D.s have sought poetic justice—by suing their alma maters for inflating postgraduate employment data. Critics from within and without are rightly calling on law schools to provide transparent employment and salary data, to cut the cost of a legal education by trimming course requirements, and to elevate clinical and practical study over the theoretical. And yet these ideas fall short of the rethinking of legal education that the times demand.

To begin with, law schools need to do their best to turn away prospective students who are in it for the money. Would-be lawyers have to be taught to see the law not as a path to wealth, but as what it has been historically—a respectable middle-class profession. Too many of our current applicants do not see the law this way—and we need to bring them to clarity, even at the risk of driving them into M.B.A. or engineering programs.

So much for beginnings. As for conclusions, law schools need to devise programs for new-lawyer training to replace those that the law firms have stopped underwriting. Here, the legal world should look to that hallmark of medical education—the hospital internship. Like medical interns, law interns would not expect to draw high salaries. Law practices could support such programs, which might replace the third year of law school, dramatically reducing tuition costs while giving graduates a chance to live the profession before determining a career path—perhaps unencumbered by a $100,000 debt.

Next idea: Less Work, More Jobs

Vincent Rougeau is the dean of Boston College Law School.
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