The secret is out. From their first day of legal practice, most lawyers realize that their theoretical legal education is of marginal value when it comes to helping clients solve real-world legal problems. Our clients now know this secret as well — thanks to a comprehensive front page article earlier this month in New York Times.

The article is What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering” and subtitled “Schools Leave Practical Training to Firms by David Segal.

There were a few points made in the article that surprised me as an experienced lawyer, and might surprise you as well.

Things You May Not Have Known

I am well-aware that many law professors have little practice experience, but I didn’t realize that nearly half of the nation’s law professors have never practiced law – not even for even a single day. As Segal states, “If medical schools took the same approach, they’d be filled with professors who had never set foot in a hospital.”

I certainly know that most law reviews are filled with highly esoteric articles destined to be read only by an author’s faculty colleagues and perhaps – just perhaps — loyal family members. I didn’t realize, however, that there are actually 600 law reviews publishing 10,000 articles per year. That’s a lot of trees for articles — around 40 percent – that are never cited in court decisions or even in other articles. That’s a lot of mental gymnastics of questionable value.

The NYT article further enlightened me by connecting the dots for a number of other well-known facts in order to draw new, disturbing conclusions. We lawyers all know that:

  • The price of law school is obscenely high and many graduates enter practice with six -figure debt.
  • Since the 2008 recession, many new lawyers are either unemployed or underemployed.
  • Law professors make a pretty decent living; many earn six-figure salaries.
  • Law professors spend much of their time writing law review articles.

Why the system is neither logical nor fair

The article concludes that today’s law student assumes onerous debt in order to pay the salaries of professors who do a bad job of training students for practical service while at the same time doing a “good” job of generating thousands of meaningless law review articles.

In effect, new lawyers are saddled with debt so that professors (half of whom have never practiced law) can spend 40 percent of their time generating esoteric pieces of legal literature. That seems both illogical and unfair.

Although the system was probably just as illogical when I attended law school, it seemed fairer. When I graduated, debt loads were manageable and jobs were plentiful. Those brilliant academics in their ivory towers may not have known much about the every-day practice of law, but some of them were certainly fun to listen to in class.

Can this illogical and unfair system be sustained? Off-hand, I’m not smart enough to know the answer. It seems that we may have reached a “bubble” that threatens to crash the foundations of legal education. But then I read that, while law school applications are down 11.5 percent this year, there are no empty seats in the country’s 200 law schools.  So go figure.

One important thing I’ve learned while coaching lawyers is that everything in the legal profession – even the best of reforms – takes a long time to change. We do things because “that’s the way they’ve always been done.” But I am smart enough to know that the next generation of lawyers will be an angry one if debt loads and job prospects do not change significantly – and soon.

(photo: Shutterstock)