The Legal Profession is at a Crossroads—Law Schools Must Change

The legal profession is at a crossroad and is facing a looming crisis–and it’s not limited to new graduates’ job placement woes. Instead, I would argue that one of the biggest mistakes our profession is making right now is that law schools are failing new graduates.

Because of the convergence of a number of factors, including the ailing economy and rapid technological advancements, the need for entry level lawyers within established legal institutions is being eradicated. At the same time, law schools are failing to provide these same lawyers with basic legal skills upon graduation-something that will come back to haunt the legal profession in a few years if changes are not made.

That there is a fundamental shift occurring in our profession is virtually indisputable at this point. If you’re not convinced, consider these sobering statistics from a recent Legal WhiteBoard blog post:

The news for the legal sector is not good.  Law Offices (NAICS 54111), which comprise 93.1% of the U.S. legal services industry, shrank by 21,600 jobs between 2009 and 2010.  Total payroll also sank by $113 million.  As shown on the chart below, the high water mark for U.S. law office employment was in 2004 (1,122,723 jobs). That was eight years ago, four+ years before the recession hit.

Economic factors are causing law firms to make adjustments to ease short term financial strains with minimal consideration for the long term effects. And while firms are doing this, there is a technology revolution occurring that is changing the way that business is conducted and reducing the need for entry level legal positions.

For example, across the pond, as reported in the Solicitor’s Journal, it is predicted that law firms will increase the number of paralegals employed by 18% over the next 5 years. No doubt, the paralegals will perform some of the functions of entry level lawyers, but at a lower cost.

And, here in the States, Washington state recently passed a rule to allow legal technicians to handle certain aspects of civil cases. The Strategist blog reports that those tasks include: filling out legal forms, informing them of procedures and timelines, reviewing and explaining pleadings, and identifying additional documents that might be needed in court. In other words, legal technicians can handle many of the tasks that associates now perform, but at a lower salary.

The restructuring of the delivery of legal services by using cheaper employees for more mundane legal tasks is one way that firms are responding to economic pressures. But, another way that law firms are acclimating is by making use of new technologies, as explained in a report recently issued by the Wisconsin State Bar Board of Governors entitled, “The New Normal: The Challenges Facing the Legal Profession.” In it, the Board concluded that lawyers will need to reduce their costs by restructuring the delivery of legal services if they hope to prosper in the 21st Century. In fact, this process has already started to occur, and although it’s been slow going, many law firms are now reducing costs by utilizing new technologies.

Of course, many of these new tools replace additional functions performed by associate attorneys, the most common example being document review. Another  example of technology replacing entry level attorneys is described by Greg Lambert in a post at 3 Geeks and a Law blog, where we learn that young law students are even creating legal apps which would automate certain aspects of case intake and analysis, thus effectively replacing their future functions as new law graduates–an unfortunate, and somewhat ironic, result indeed.

In essence, the depressed economy and new technologies are reducing the demand for associate attorneys. There are fewer entry level positions available and as a result, increasing numbers of new law graduates are striking out on their own and hanging shingles, with varying results.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy being a solo practitioner and new graduates are discovering this the hard way. As Sam recently discussed, starting a law practice can be costly. And earning a living as a solo lawyer isn’t exactly a walk in the park. In fact, as reported at Strategist, according to a recent survey, solo attorneys get paid for less than 40% of their time.

Going solo isn’t an easy path for young graduates, fresh out of law school, facing enormous debt loads, and wholly unprepared for the realities of running a law firm. Starting your own firm under those circumstances is a daunting prospect and oftentimes, it’s simply not sustainable.

That being said, if our law schools were structured differently, new graduates would be better prepared. Our legal education system needs a complete overhaul and the failure to do so will cause a crisis in the years to come. Young graduates must gain practical experience before they leave law school.

The first year should remain the same, but the second and third years should have a very strong clinical focus, much like a medical residency, with practice management requirements, as well. This curriculum would better prepare young lawyers to go solo upon graduation or to work for a firm and handle more than basic entry level tasks, which are increasingly being handled by non-lawyers or computers.

If this doesn’t occur, new graduates will be unable to gain experience in traditional law firm environments, older attorneys will retire, and there will be a very small pool of attorneys with the necessary experience available to take their places. Eventually, in the very near future, we are going to reach a point where merging firms or lateraling in partners will be unsustainable practices.

Of course, I’m simplifying the end result somewhat. But I’m doing this to make a point. This is a very real problem and one that needs to be addressed. Overhauling law schools is the only solution. Unfortunately, most law schools are more concerned with the bottom line than improving our profession. In fact, as reported at the Legal Skills Prof blog, the first thing most law schools cut when finances are tight is clinical programs.

So, sadly, I don’t see any major overhauls occurring, which puts us in a bit of a pickle, now, doesn’t it? We’re undoubtedly at a crossroads, but I highly doubt our profession will choose the road less traveled–and that will make all the difference.

(photo: female graduate with thoughtful expression from Shutterstock)

  • http://www.younanlaw.com Jon P Younan

    I am a solo attorney who was licensed in May of 2010 and I think this article is right on the money. I graduated cum laude from Cooley law school in 2010 and I have only landed a few interviews. I’m sure Cooley’s reputation has a lot to do with the dismal response to my resume. That being said, Cooley law school’s emphasis on practical education in my L2 and L3 years was invaluable. Cooley required a pretrial skills course which had us interview clients, take mock depositions, prepare Pretrial motions and defend summary judgment motion in front of sitting county judge in their courtroom. Additionally, ADR was a course requirement that taught me skills I still use today. Moot-court was also a requirement for my litigation concentration. My trial skills class included prosecuting/defending 3 full mock trials throughout the term. Finally, Cooley requires clinical/externship credits in order to graduate. Despite their reputation, Cooley law school’s emphasis on practical legal education has prepared me to get out their and practice law. One week after getting my license I was in court representing a client with a successful outcome. I owe it all to the practical skills I learned at Cooley law school.

  • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

    This post was just a wee bit ambitious. Initially, your conclusion about technology being used to reduce costs has no support. You took a bit of a facile leap over any substantive basis for the claim.

    But more importantly, the question of what law school should become is in the throes of hot debate, ranging from Brian Tamahana’s new book, Failing Law Schools, Bill Henderson’s series of essays, about a million lawprof blog posts and some of the futurists efforts to not be laughed at by lawyers. Plus, a few practicing lawyers have discussed this in depth as well. While you certainly have as much authority to opine as anyone, it’s a bit too complex an issue to state in a lone paragraph.

    By the way, the reason schools cut clinical programs is that they’re more expensive to maintain the classroom instruction. If schools were to use the second and third year for clinincal instruction, the impact on tuition could be catastrophic. This is an example of one of the many stumbling blocks to reform.

    I subscribe to Kliban’s philosophy of never eating anything bigger than your head. Perhaps this would be better done in a number of posts made up for smaller bites that discussed the complex issues in greater depth?

  • James Keuning

    Practical training is not the solution. An associate being replaced by a paralegal gets no benefit from better training; that associate is being cut because of cost. Likewise the associate being replaced by an app.

    Being trained to practice does not create clients. (And it does not reduce the number of lawyers.)

    • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

      Don’t assume “the solution” is a single magic bullet. Practical training enables lawyers to be productive earlier, meaning that firms and clients are getting value from a new lawyer rather than just sinking a paycheck into a lawyer who produces nothing of value.

      It’s part of the solution. Just not all of it.

  • http://blog.diligenceengine.com Noah Waisberg – DiligenceEngine

    This is an interesting post.

    I have some thoughts on whether legal education needs to change, but will focus here on technology’s impact on junior lawyers. I’ll also focus more on Biglaw, which is all I’m really familiar with.

    While I strongly agree that new legal technology is going to change how junior lawyers practice law, and that much current junior associate work is ripe for automation, I do not think tech will make junior lawyer jobs go away on the whole (though I think certain employment areas (e.g., doc review contract attorneys) may shrink significantly).

    First, technological change has affected junior lawyer work many times before (e.g., blacklining software), and law firms have continued to hire vast numbers of junior lawyers.

    Second, demand for high end legal services is generally elastic–-transaction costs matter for most matters. Parties (in a deal or litigation where they feel they need high end lawyers they trust) may avoid doing a deal, litigating a matter or making a bid because legal fees are too high to justify. Lower overall legal fees per transaction (driven by more efficient work processes incorporating automation/outsourcing) can drive more transactions. Meaning more high end legal work. And so even though junior lawyers may be able to complete their tasks more quickly, more deals should mean there will be lots for them to do. For more detail on this point, see “Will the ‘future legal marketplace’ need less lawyers?” on the DiligenceEngine Blog.

    Also, regarding the point on English paralegal growth: Richard Moorhead persuasively writes that paralegal growth will not necessarily outstrip solicitor (attorney) growth in this strong piece.

  • http://gyitsakalakis.com Gyi Tsakalakis

    Anyone that has gone to law school and spent even a short time working as a lawyer should recognize that law schools don’t teach students how to be lawyers.

    Couple this with more law school graduates striking out on their own, and it’s not surprise that we have a widening gap between licensed lawyers and competent lawyers.

    Personally, I like the law firm schools idea. Still has some bugs to work out, but seems to me to be the right direction.

  • Carlos

    A way around it is to have advanced law school students handle jobs currently handeled by para legals and get paid for it. This could (i) help them prepare for when they leave school, (ii) help them pay some of their debt, (iii) reduce employer´s costs and (iv) give the employer a chance to test drive a future associate.