First, Let’s Indenture All The Lawyers
Published on: April 1, 2012
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  • John Alsina

    I was told by an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo (Ontario) that his students typically graduate with zero debt, several years of professional job experience, and a job offer in hand. That is because the curriculum includes a substantial amount of time spent working in real, paid engineering jobs arranged by the university. In addition to virtually eliminating student debt, the work requirement also tends to eliminate professional students and provides advanced warning to students who are ill-suited to their chosen field.

    Why can’t we do that in the US? It isn’t rocket science, and it seems to work. Or is there some perverse incentive that prevents it?

  • Kenny

    You got it exactly right, Mr. Mead.

  • Andrew Allison

    Although you have mentioned it elsewhere, it might have been worth reiterating that most of the work being done by junior associates is being automated and/or out-sourced. The prospect for the vast majority of those eager enrollees are bleak indeed.

  • Law schools – the new opium!

  • Anthony

    WRM, are you suggeting conflating training and academic instruction (“students in many fields would benefit from an approach to education that involved better integration of work experiences and academic courses”) to rein in costs – or should overall value added be reassessed?

  • vanderleun

    Perhaps Mead should consider going back for a course in PVC lawn furniture repair in case blogging and writing short review for Foreign Affairs doesn’t work out.

  • JasonM

    The elephant in the room here is the power of ABA accreditation, as a monopoly/cartel that decides what is or isn’t “law school.”

    The NY Times recently profiled Duncan, a school that is trying to do exactly what WRM suggests re: law school: “a shorter, skills-based course providing hands-on experience at a cost that won’t throw young Americans into debt peonage.”

    Or as the Times put it, a Chevy, not a Cadillac. The problem is that to get ABA accreditation, you need to spend $$$ on a huge library, $$$ on many full-time faculty, the list goes on.

    Result: you guessed it, Duncan is denied accreditation by the ABA.

    There are a lot of vested interests that stand in the way of this reform… sounds familiar somehow… the Purple Social Model, was it?

  • JJ

    After spending a few years being a bum in Europe, milking my lib-arts degree for all it was worth teaching ESL to French uni students, I decided on law school. After all, it’s flexible etc (so they say). I had excellent grades from undergrad and was set on Duke or a similar name-school in the South. I’d finance the whole thing cause we all know Duke grads go to BigLaw @160k. Heck, I’d live cheap and pay it off in a couple years.

    I missed the LSAT deadline out of sheer irresponsibility and incompetence. I had a baby on the way and couldn’t very well wait a whole year for LS. Instead, I took the GMAT and earned a masters of accounting, part-time, at a state school. I graduated with zero debt and a big4 offer in hand. I earn 62,000 a year (second year in). Missing the LSAT deadline was the very best thing that ever happened to me in my life. My wife and I speak in hushed tones when we think of the disaster we avoided.

  • Todd

    Reply to John @#1. Law schools are very profitable. No expensive labs. Large classes. High tuition.

  • “And with only 25 law schools in China for over a billion people today, in order for Chinese students to enjoy as much institutional choice as Americans on a per-capita basis, our friends in the PRC need at least 834 more law schools.”

    First China has to have the rule of law:

    and especially,

    This is what we are up against.

  • The vested interests – the law professors and the universities which make money from their law schools – are opposed to all change. One modest possibility – make the third year of law school optional since most third year courses are narrow specialties or not serious. For those who don’t want the specialties, the cost of legal education would be reduced by one-third. Another possibility – the state supreme courts could admit to the bar anyone who has attended 2 years of law school and passes the bar exam, thereby bypassing the obstructionists.

  • Chase

    This essay was right on target Professor. I’m not joking when I say that since I was a freshman in high school I’ve wanted to be a lawyer. I spent most of my spare time in high school and college reading biographies and memoirs of the great criminal defense lawyers of our time. (If anyone is interested in this genre, you can’t do better than Black’s law by Roy Black, maybe the best all around defense lawyer alive today.) But due to the high cost of the education and the grim job prospects, I’m going back to the drawing board. This makes me very sad, but I guess there is no sense in ignoring the harsh economic reality. In 1998, the year I entered high school, the average price of a year in private law school was around 90K; this number includes room and board. Now it’s about 180k. It goes without saying that wages have not kept up with this increase in cost.

    Some of your proposed reforms make a LOT of sense. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone is listening who has any power to make change.

  • Brett

    So half of the students do end up at big law firms? I wonder what type of jobs they’re doing – I’ve heard horror stories about attorneys who get stuck working really tough temp positions.

  • Walter Sobchak

    #6 Gerard: He has always spoken well of you. BTW: His day job is professor.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “if they turned the JD into a shorter, skills-based course providing hands-on experience at a cost that won’t throw young Americans into debt peonage.”

    Actually, there is a lot of back story in there. I am a lawyer (sort of, as I am retired by still licensed), as were my father and grandfather, may they rest in peace. I went to law school in the 1970s after earning a BA in history, and was awarded a J.D.

    My ancestors went to law school in the earlier years of the 20th century. They earned LLB degrees, they did not earn BAs or JDs. I do not have their transcripts or detailed course descriptions. I do know from their dates that the program took four or five years. (a little hard to tell with my father because he spent part of his early 20s in the US Army during WW II) They were both excellent lawyers respected in their profession and their community.

    In the 1960s and 70s, the ABA, perhaps seeking to upgrade the image of the profession, and perhaps seeking to limit the number of law students, persuaded the law schools and the bar associations to require a an undergraduate BA and a three year JD program as a prerequisite to licensing.

    When I was in school it was annoying, but not fatal. Tuitions, particularly at state schools, were low enough to allow most people to get through with part time and summer work.

    The cost of the ABA’s decision is now unsupportable. It should be reversed, and the LLB should be reinstated as a 4 year program out of high school that allows for licensing. This would dramatically lower the cost of becoming a lawyer, and show some compassion to the students.

  • Kris

    [email protected]: The University of Waterloo is indeed a great institution, and its co-op program seems to be one of the more successful of its kind. Contrasts to the situation described in this post:

    (i) As I said, it’s an elite institution, and its CS and Engineering graduates are almost guaranteed to be first-rate. The problem with US Higher Ed is not MIT or CalTech. In fact, it is rare for STEM graduates in general to face the problems described in this post.

    (ii) UW tuition fees are significantly lower than those mentioned in this post. This may be in part because the Canadian taxpayer subsidizes universities more, and is mainly because American universities see their law schools as cash cows.

    (iii) More relevant is that the UW co-op program weeds out students who are not willing to delay their graduation date for the purpose of engaging in challenging professional work. If the American system were filled with serious, hard-working students who knew the value of delayed gratification… Nah, I’m straying into fantasy here.

    (Aside: Unless a job requires strong communication skills, I’ll hire a UW CS/Eng/Math grad over an Ivy League grad, sight unseen.)

  • Scott

    I graduated from my undergrad alma mater in 1985. Since then, the university has built a brand new law school, new business school, new auditorium for Division 1 collegiate basketball of which the school is usually very competitive, completely renovated the football stadium with state of the art technology including huge big screen monitors and sound system, seating, new and expanded parking lot area, etc., new residence halls to accommodate about 2,000 bodies, and probably much more that I can’t think of right now off the top of my head.

    The school is effectively engaged in building an empire thanks to the taxpayer subsidized student loans that enable them to raise tuition and fees a steady 5%-10% every year. To be fair, a benefactors donated a couple of million each so the law school, business school, and auditorium were named after them, but much of the cost was born by the university. I stopped responding to solicitations for donations a few years ago. They obviously don’t need my money if they can afford to effectively rebuild the campus in the past 25 years.

    Until we make the schools co-sign and partially guarantee some of the student debt, the market for student education financing will remain grossly distorted and this malinvestment and empire building will continue.

  • Carolus

    The solution to the excess lawyer problem is actually quite easy: let new lawyers be trained in apprenticeships in law firms from the start, instead of law school. Now, they are essentially apprentices as junior associates, and that’s fine, but they don’t need three years of law school to do that. With good quality apprenticeship programs, they can then pass the bar after a few years, and become practicing lawyers. The only law schools then remaining would be ones that specialize in academic legal research — maybe 25 or so of the best ones. The rest, let them go out of business.

  • hmi

    “a very large number of the other 200 odd law schools in the United States might serve their students better if they turned the JD into a shorter, skills-based course providing hands-on experience”

    There was such a program (it still exists in NY, possibly elsewhere)—it was called “reading law.” In essence, you apprenticed yourself to an attorney for some years and eventually you took the bar exam. In the late 60s I knew a woman (she was then in her late 50s) who had done just this. She had been a secretary to an attorney for about a decade, at which point, just for the hell of it, she took and passed the bar exam and got herself admitted. I think NY now requires one year of formal legal education, but that beats the heck out of paying for 3 years.

  • Tom Armstrong

    Just to take a contrarian point; Given that children tend to followin their parents’ path (see Roe Effect); is it a bad thing to keep the lawyers from reproducing?

  • Larry J

    It’s reported there are over a million lawyers in the US today. That’s roughly one out of every 300 Americans, which to my mind is insane. It seems to me that the universities are producing more lawyers each year than the market can handle. About half of all the law schools should be closed, their buildings demolished and the ground salted so nothing ever grows there again. OK, those last two items are unlikely.

  • Edward Sodaro MD

    The John Edwards/William Lerach type lawyers can make vast money (at least for a while).

    But for at least some folks, law school is the absolute worst decision of their lives. They end up as debt slaves for the rest of their miserable ruined existence, which ever growing student loan debt that is non-dischargable in bankruptcy.

    I strongly support the lawsuits against law schools that misrepresent their job placement figures.

  • Gordon

    [email protected]: I also went to Mizzou (which, if not your alma mater, fits your description perfectly). I graduated without debt in 1986 and have had a great career in a technical field. I also refuse all donation requests for the same reasons. The school thrives on an artificial crisis of perpetual financial need.

  • John Galt

    @JJ – We’re in similar boats. I had an undergrad in English and blew off the LSAT because it conflicted with a home football game.

    Bounced around for a year and went back for an MBA with 36 hours in accounting – became a CPA and did that for a few years before going into corporate finance/risk management at an oil company.

    I work with lawyers enough to know that, even if you manage to land a BigLaw job, it is absolutely horrible.

    The two degrees I can unequivacably recommend to ANYONE are engineering (esp. chemical, petroleum, or mechanical) and accounting. Most schools require or strongly encourage internships also so you graduate with experience and contacts.

    Bonus points if you do 2 years at a JuCo and live at home before transferring in – you’ll get much better instructors and the JuCo is more interested in teaching than weeding.

    IMHO any parent who lets their child take on $100K+ in student loans for a liberal arts or one of the squishier (marketing, management) business degrees is guilty of child abuse. This wasn’t true 20 years ago when I got out, but the world is a lot tougher now than then.

  • Why not just get rid of the law school requirement? Increase the difficulty of the bar exam (same for CPA) and say that anyone who can pass is a lawyer (CPA).

    That’s the way we used to do it and I don’t think that the quality of justice or accountancy has improved any since we added all of this collegiate dreck to what are after all simply Trades.

  • ThomasD

    Law school is one easily identifiable promontory on the tip of the proverbial iceberg of student loan debt.

    The longer we persist in this ‘new’ economy and the longer wages stagnate the problem will begin to reveal itself in any number of other professions.

    Costs have exceeded value and there are no more safe bets.

  • JKB

    Chase, you dodged a bullet. If you read blawgs, such as Simple Justice, by practicing lawyers, you’ll learn their opinion is that the newly minted law school grad is sorely unprepared for the actual practice of law. They can pontificate all day on Joy and the Law but provide useful services for paying clients, not so much.

    The tragedy of this is that law is the only job where to many job seekers is bad for the economy. With to many lawyers, you either get litigation over every little thing in an effort to extract money, robo-foreclosures with frauds upon the court or they go into politics and community organizing. China would have a solution by taking the lawyers at the bottom of the sea literally.

  • Joe Blow

    Good stuff. I graduated from a Top 20 law school at the middle of the .com bust. My job offer evaporated when that firm’s (largely tech) business did. I eventually landed on my feet and have a fairly successful mid tier / upper mid tier law practice. And, 15 years later, 5 more years to go on my loans, which covered tuition that is somewhat low by today’s standards. Sometimes my friends ask why my family and I live in a modest house, drive nice but midrange cars, and don’t vacation a lot. I tell them that soon I’ll be living high, but I’m actually paying for two houses right now – my own, and my law school dean’s. True story: it’s a second mortgage payment. Not good.

    The advice I tell kids today who are looking to go to law school is “go to a top 5 or to 7 school at any cost; but don’t go anywhere else unless you can go free.” A student like me who had to pay full freight at a top 20 school, can go free to a second tier school. I had a couple free ride offers on the table, but turned them down – to my infinite regret. If you can’t shoot comfortably into a white stocking firm – with a clerkship or two, top grades, editing the law review (we’re talking the top 2-3 percent of grads from most schools) then you need to think budget and future. Law school is immensely overpriced for what most graduates get out of it.

  • msc

    I like the idea *in concept*. But if we make law school shorter and less expensive, then you’ll have even more college graduates interested in it, meaning more J.D.’s, depressing the job market and salaries.

    In short, the plan only works if you raise the bar (no pun intended) to law school admission even higher. But the law schools don’t want to do that – and if you make law school cheaper, the incentive is exactly the opposite – more students!

    (I also agree with the sentiment that a good bar course teaches you pretty much all you need to know in a couple of months. After studying for the bar, I wondered what I had wasted my last three years on…..)

  • Wilbur

    I think they need to start including an ROI question on the LSAT at would be Pass/Fail

  • Robert

    At the very least, the entire third year of law school can be done away with. At the very most, we ned a Khan Academy approach to future law education.

  • WG

    Law school isn’t the only trap that college graduates are falling into. Post- baccalaureate education is all the rage these days, but a graduate degree can be a handicap if it comes at the price of pulling you out of the job market and robbing you of experience.

    There’s a lot of regret in the comments on the “100 reasons NOT to go to grad school” blog:

  • EvilBuzzard

    The college degree will start getting less and less valuable. To compensate for this, the top tier universities will initiate more than 1 level of accreditation. This will reestablish the value of the Degree from Jolly Old Dartmouth; while it will nuke the value of a degree from Podunk St. Where the degree is from will become dramatically more important in the future.

  • Esteban

    All this talk about degrees. What a waste that accreditation means more than actual knowledge and useful skills. Go to college to learn something, not just to gain a diploma. Forget law school and graduate school unless you can get someone else to pay for it or have a great opportunity guaranteed to you afterward. Learn another language or two, and watch the doors open. And what you have to do to earn another language is actually fun.

    By the way, if you are a man, spend a year working a proper and ambitious barbell training program. What you become through this transformation of body and character will surely serve you a lot more in life, and be a lot cheaper, than that stupid master’s degree people are so all fired anxious to spend their time and money on.

  • Ben

    [email protected]:

    “Why can’t we do that in the US?”

    We do & have been for over a century:

    As a grad, I’m biased, but I loved the co-op program. 5 years to graduate with 2 years of real on-the-job experience (finance/MIS for me, but they have co-op for just about ever program).

    I’ll note the other school I was considering was Drexel, which is also a co-op school.

  • teapartydoc

    With the recent finding by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that tens of billions in student loans continue to be owed by people over 60 years of age, we really have a situation of generalized indentured servitude. Eventually some drastic action is going to be taken to relieve this, whether by people, or politicians. If this were any other sector of the economy other than “education”, we would be seeing incessant calls for reform and regulation in the mainstream press. But because it involves money transfers to “education”, the real issue of whether or not the institutions that end up with the money are being responsible in telling their matriculants will be likely to repay these debts in their lifetimes gets swept under the rug. I think that any solution should involve recovery of ill-gotten gains from those who end up with the money. The universities.

  • maulerman

    Quick Question. Which of the justices who heard oral argument last week would everyone like to replace with someone who attended a skills based law school?

  • Douglas

    I wonder if it’s time to revisit the bankruptcy treatment of student loans. Once upon a time, it was common for student to borrow money for school and then promptly declare bankruptcy after graduating. This scandalized everyone, so the law was changed to make student debt non-dischargeable. The result is what we have now: lenders figure that they have an entire career to collect, so the sky’s the limit. Methinks a mid-course correction is overdue. As a social matter (as Prof. Mead has pointed out), do we really want a country where most young people start out life owing the equivalent of a house mortgage? How will they ever get on with things?

  • Kristian

    JJ and John Galt: Thanks for the especially helpful anecdotes and analysis.

    I graduated in ’09 with a lib. arts degree from a top 25 school. My parents paid for it, so luckily I have no debt. I always assumed I’d be in law school at this point in my life, but I talked to a lot of lawyers, and made the decision not to go. After a couple of years working and “figuring it out,” I’m going to delve more deeply into the tech industry. I’m considering a CS degree, though know there are a lot free options out there.

    I know a lot of people who did the law school route, and it seems to me a lot were just lib. arts majors with no clue of what to do with their lives. Our parents could get away with that in terms of financial costs, but we cannot, with these exorbitant prices.

    **By the way, I recently saw in the news that there are some class-action lawsuits against law schools for misleading students in their job placement statistics. For example, someone working outside the field of law as a bartender or waiter would still be considered gainfully employed by their standards. D’oh!

  • Edward Sodaro MD

    I support a type of approach inspired by some proposals from Instapundit, the insightful law professor Glenn Reynolds.

    After a certain amount of time, student loans must once again be permitted to be discharged in bankruptcy, if such loans prove unpayable due to the inadequacy of the education generating such loans. In addition some of the discharged student loan debt, say one quarter of the final discharged interest, penalties, and equity, must return to the educational institution(s) where aforementioned loans originated.

    In other words, no more lifetime debt slavery. No more ruined lives from greedy law (and other) schools seducing naive young people to sign unpayable student loans.

    Another bonus: You would see a very rapid major reform in all of higher education. Worthless degrees from third rate education would quickly cease. No more Gender Studies or Marxism Dynamics majors. No more Occupy courses or vacations in China masquarading as education. Lazy tenured professors might be required to actually teach.

  • Scott

    @ Gordon #23 of April 2, 2012 at 11:49 am:

    Amazing. I am referring to Mizzou in that comment and you picked up on it.

  • mixplix

    When will we realize that colleges and universities are a business? Dreams of becoming rich are on the minds of many freshmen not realizing the amount of mental and physical work involved. After graduation they are at the bottom of the totem pole, in debt and without a cash flow and stay with Mom and Dad until they get their feet on the ground, sound familiar? At twenty two their ears are almost dry and for many the maturity gauge is just starting to move. One of the first things a graduate hears when they finally find work that fits their diploma is, “Forget about what you learned in school, this is the real world.” My advice to an eighteen year old is join the military where they will mature and get paid at the same time. It might not be the answer for some but neither is a college or university. The party atmosphere of college is a tough way to mature that Mom and Dad are paying for or if your lucky a student loan is clicking away while you are mandated to take courses that keep a professor in scotch. Good luck to the graduates stepping into the real world and the realization that you just stepped out of their own egg shell.

  • Michael

    As I near the completion of my 20th year practicing law, I believe that my legal education (at Cornell) was very valuable, but there was one year too much of it. But at least I was fortunate enough to attend when annual tuition was in only the high teens. I took a job as an associate at a large firm and my loans were paid off in about 4 years.

    As at least one person posting here has noted, law schools are highly profitable to the universities of which they are part. Lecture hall settings with no labs equals profitability. I believe that law school should be more economical and only two years.

  • GK

    “An internet-based program that prepped students for the bar exam might, for many Americans, be a much more effective and efficient way to get the skills they need for the $50,000 to $65,000 jobs at the end of the rainbow.”

    If you think the bar exam has anything to do with the “skills they need” to practice, you are smoking dope. The bar exam is either (a) a joke or (b) the only governor on the system that does any limiting of the number of newly minted lawyers entering the system. But it is not about skills. It is not even about competence.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @GK: so revise the bar exams. In general, we need to make it easier to get a license to practice various forms of law as better legal software reduces the need for information to be in the heads of professionals.

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