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)