At the end of this Bloomberg Law video, Above the Law’s Elie Mystal predicts law schools will split into two tiers, one for law students who are aiming to become white-shoe law firm partners and Supreme Court justices, and another for law students aiming for a middle-class existence in smaller markets.
I suspect he is right, but I wonder how many law schools will voluntarily adopt second-tier status. Because how many prospective law students are willing to be realistic about their chances to reach the top of the profession? If they were realistic, they probably wouldn’t be applying to law school in the first place. A de facto second tier may emerge (if it hasn’t already), but I’ll bet most of the schools in that second tier will continue to sell broken dreams.
Elie was talking about big-firm “worker bees” vs. those on the partner track, but his prediction is just as relevant for solo and small-firm lawyers.
My thoughts on disruption aside, there is a real need for lawyers who can make a decent living while charging lower fees. I don’t want to be that lawyer, in part because I’ve still got some pretty massive student loans to pay back. The same goes for pretty much every other lawyer I know. But if I could have graduated with a more-reasonable debt load (or none at all), and some practical legal and business skills, I might have taken that option, even if it meant I couldn’t realistically dream about becoming a BigLaw partner or stepping behind the federal bench.
There are law schools already billing themselves along these lines. I was in North Carolina last year, and learned about Campbell Law School, which focuses on teaching lawyers how to practice law in the local community. But for the price tag, Campbell seems like exactly what is needed in a “second-tier” law school. Except “second-tier” isn’t really the right term. The “elite” lawyers may consider lawyers in solo or small-firm practice to be second-tier, but I don’t know many solos or small-firm lawyers — some who are practicing law at the highest levels — who think of themselves that way. Campbell has a narrower focus, is all. And price tag does matter. You cannot lower your prices while you have a mortgage-sized law school debt to pay off.
There is currently only one form of legal education, really, and one price tag for it. That’s despite the fact that basically everyone acknowledges that the current form of law school education doesn’t do much to educate lawyers on practicing law. Even limited-focus law schools like Campbell don’t change much about the curriculum — or the tuition.
If law schools can accept the idea of limited focus and budget in order to better serve certain lawyers, it would probably be good for everyone, from law students to lawyers to clients. Maybe Elie’s 15-year timeline is about the time it will take for law schools to finally realize that.