The question is hotly debated among law school students, lawyers, judges, commentators, and policy makers: is law school still worth it? We've all heard the stories of bright, hard-working students who graduate from law school only to be faced with the arduous task of finding a permanent legal job in a struggling economy while shouldering the astronomical burden of $150,000 in student loan debt. But the bigger questions are: How did we get here? And what should we do about it?
According to a study done by the ABA Research Center, in 2008 there were 1,162,124 lawyers in the United States. David Barnhizer, Redesigning the American Law School, 2010 Mich. St. L. Rev. 249, 276 (2010). By 2009, that number had climbed to 1,180,386, which means that in the span of one year, 18,262 lawyers joined the profession. Id. Of the approximately 1.1 million lawyers in the United States, 400,000 were licensed in the last 10 years. Id. at 282.
While law schools continue to turn out legions of graduates, the pool of available jobs for these newly minted attorneys has shrunk. According to recent data published by the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP), the overall employment rate for new law school graduates in 2010 was 87.6 percent. NALP, Employment for the Class of 2010 – Selected Findings, available at http://www.nalp.org/uploads/Classof2010 SelectedFindings.pdf. This number is the lowest it has been since 1996, when the unemployment rate for new law school graduates fell to 87.4 percent. Id. A reported 15,000 jobs at large law firms have been cut since 2008. David Segal, Is Law School a Losing Game?, N.Y. Times, Jan. 8, 2011.
In addition to graduating with fewer future job prospects, many graduates carry with them staggering amounts of debt. The average tuition at an American public law school is said to have increased by 448 percent between 1987 and 2005. William S. Howard, The Student Loan Crisis and the Race to Princeton Law School, 7 J. L. Econ. & Pol'y 485, 486 (2011). Approximately 85 percent of graduates from ABA-accredited law schools carry an average debt load of $98,500. William D. Henderson and Rachel M. Zahorsky, The Law School Bubble, ABA Journal, Jan. 2012, at 30-35. By 2020, the Office of Management and Budget estimates that direct loans to students will total $1.8 trillion, and between 2 and 4 percent of that will be for law school graduates. Id. at 34.
One of the most frequent criticisms of the current version of the American law school model is that in addition to leaving many students without jobs and with enormous debt, it does not adequately prepare them for the practice of law. Critics argue that while law schools spend three years teaching students archaic principles of law and encouraging heated policy debates, what law schools don't do is teach students how to be practicing lawyers.
Some have recently proposed that we deregulate legal education by allowing anyone (not just law school graduates) to take the bar exam, arguing that eliminating the requirement of a formal legal education would promote greater efficiency and reduce the problem of law school debt. See, e.g., George Leef, Allow Anyone to Take the Bar, N.Y. Times, July 25, 2011. As part of a discussion of this issue in a series posted by the New York Times, George Leef contends that law school is unnecessary because lawyers learn the practical skills they need for their jobs when they begin working, rather than in the academic classes they take in law school. Id.
Clifford Winston echoes Mr. Leef's sentiment, contending that "occupational licensure has been costly and ineffective; it misleads consumers about the quality of licensed lawyers and the potential for non-lawyers to provide able assistance." Clifford Winston, Are Law Schools and Bar Exams Necessary?, N.Y. Times, Oct. 24, 2011. Mr. Winston argues that eliminating law schools and bar exams would result in reduced legal costs, because non-lawyers would be able to charge less for their services with no student loans hanging over them. Id.
Another less drastic proposal for change involves changing the law school model to shorten the time spent in classrooms and get more students into the practice of law earlier. David Lat has proposed a model in which the first two years of law school are used for traditional legal instruction, while the third year is used for apprenticeships. David Lat, Bring Back Apprenticeships, N.Y. Times, July 25, 2011. Mr. Lat argues that "[u]nder this system, aspiring lawyers would stop accruing debt and start earning money at an earlier point." Id. Law students would gain the practical knowledge their employers want them to have, and employers could train workers to their specific requirements. Id.
On the other hand, others argue that shortening or eliminating the law school curriculum – even if it would reduce students' debt burden – would be a mistake. Kevin Noble Maillard, It's Not a Trade School, N.Y. Times, Sept. 13, 2011. Kevin Noble Maillard argues that the traditional legal model should be continued because "[i]t prepares people to become leaders in our society, which makes it imperative that they be rigorously trained as thinkers." Id.
Indeed, many argue that law schools are inherently valuable because they teach students to think like a lawyer. See, e.g., Geoffrey R. Stone, Learning to Think Like a Lawyer, N.Y. Times, July 15, 2011. Geoffrey Stone contends that what law schools do best is develop critical analytical skills: Rather than teaching students to memorize principles of law, law schools teach students how to apply those principles to different fact patterns, so that when they hit the real world they are prepared for anything. Id. Additionally, as Leonard Long points out, treating law school as a trade school ignores the fact that not everyone who goes to law school ends up practicing law. Leonard J. Long, Resisting Anti-Intellectualism and Promoting Legal Literacy, 34 S. Ill. U.L.J. 1, 2 (2009). Many trained in the legal method often eschew law practice in favor of careers in business, politics, journalism, or academia. Id.
One proposal that seeks to balance law students' need for increased practical training with the recognition of the inherent value of a formal legal education is the suggestion that all law students participate in some sort of clinical coursework during law school. See Richard A. Matasar, The Viability of the Law Degree: Cost, Value, and Intrinsic Worth, 96 Iowa L. Rev. 1579, 1612-13 (2011). Currently, only 3 percent of law schools require students to participate in clinical training. David Segal, What They Don't Teach Law Students: Lawyering, N.Y. Times, Nov. 19, 2011. Richard Matasar contends that if all law schools required (or at least strongly encouraged) their students to complete a clinical course of study before graduation, those students would leave law school with more of the practical skills necessary to succeed in a variety of professional legal settings. Matasar, supra at 1612-13.
Even this proposal, however, has its difficulties. Mr. Matasar himself acknowledges that requiring each student to take a semester's worth of clinical coursework could end up being an expensive proposition for some law schools, which might need to hire additional faculty and other resources to support the courses. See id.
Commentators have primarily called upon law schools, regulators, and policy makers to decide upon and implement these institutional changes. In the end, however, one of the easiest solutions is within the reach of every member of the bar. Increased mentoring of prospective law school students, including candid discussions about the costs of law school and the outlook for potential job prospects, is something we can all contribute. For students who carefully consider their reasons for attending law school and who make decisions about their student loans with realistic expectations of their ability to repay them, law school may still be worth it. As practicing lawyers, it is our responsibility to seek out and mentor these students.
Carolyn Pratt graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 2008. After a two-year clerkship at the North Carolina Court of Appeals, Carolyn joined the Wilmington, North Carolina office of Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog, LLP as a member of the firm's litigation group.