Summer Reading: The Legal Apocalypse

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There have been no definitive predictions for a Doomsday, but educators, lawyers, and media argue that legal education is teetering on the brink of catastrophe. Here’s what they say are the warning signs:

  • Disparities in Supply and Demand: Rutgers University School of Law-Newark Dean John J. Farmer, Jr. notes, “Nearly half of those who graduated from law school in 2011 did not quickly find full-time, long-term work as lawyers. Yet the need for legal representation has never been greater. In New Jersey, where I teach law, 99 percent of the 172,000 defendants in landlord-tenant disputes last year lacked legal counsel.”  Now, law school applications are at a 30-year-low.
  • Flawed Ranking Systems: The profession is governed by U.S News and World Report rankings, which, Northwestern Law Professor Stephen J. Harper notes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, are skewed by low response rates, imperfect criteria, and—most surprisingly—ignorance on behalf of the reviewers.  Thomas M. Cooley Law School founder Thomas E. Brennan surveyed 100 lawyers about their opinion of certain law schools.  Harper shares Brennan’s results: “‘As I recall, they ranked Penn State’s law school right about in the middle of the pack.’ Brennan said later. …  At the time, Penn State didn’t have a law school.” Lawyers who participate in the U.S. News Rankings are asked to evaluate every law school, without the assurance that these lawyers actually know about the institutions in question.  Yet these rankings still influence aspiring law students and law firm hiring decisions.
  • Exorbitant Educational Expenses: Tuition increases for these ranked institutions have translated to surges in student debt. Washington University Professor of Law Brian Z. Tamanaha claims that in the past ten years alone, tuition has nearly doubled, and average student debt has risen to six-figure marks. And he’s, quite literally, written the book: he published Failing Law Schools in 2012.
  • The Supremacy of Big Law: Harper rues the switch from viewing law as a career of public service to the emphasis on competition and money.  He cites the “Am Law” ranking system as the culprit, and the student debt as a reinforcing incentive for starting lawyers to seek lucrative careers in Big Law.
  • Pyramid Schemes: Salaried employees outnumber the high-rolling equity partners, which Harper believes has contributed to unhappiness throughout the profession.  In support of his theory, Forbes ranked associate attorneys as having the unhappiest jobs in America.
  • Outdated delivery: John G. Browning rues the antiquity of student-run law reviews (to which Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution Editor-in-Chief Brian Farkas responds), which he argues are simply not timely enough to contribute meaningfully to legal conversation—in turn doing an educational disservice to student authors. He also argues that theoretical legal discussion is too abstract to be relevant to budding lawyers. Martin J. Katz, Dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, thinks the “bundled” JD degree fails to deliver legal education who could otherwise benefit from less than three years of training.

Worried yet? The American Bar Association seems to be. Their new Task Force on the Future of Legal Education solicited comments from individuals and organizations in late 2012 and early 2013—recommended solutions are still in the works.  But the blogosphere has had a lot to say as well. In the coming weeks, we’ll be reviewing proposed solutions to the legal ed crisis that have gotten attention on the web.