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.
Note the role played by firms in this scenario. For years, they simply bought whatever law schools were selling. Instead of expecting the schools to teach J.D.'s practical skills, they treated them as glorified head-hunting services from which they could draw raw talent. Even when schools offered up programs such as legal clinics, which let students represent underprivileged clients under the supervision of a licensed attorney, the response from the industry was minimal. To this day, hiring partners at elite firms still mostly look for students with high GPAs and law journal experience--experiences that, as Megan McArdle would tell you, were probably pretty similar to their own.