To the Editor:
Since the downturn in the economy, I have spent many hours counseling law students and recently graduated lawyers about finding suitable employment. Conversations seem to inevitably turn to issues of self-image, self-worth and even despair concerning the ability to succeed in the legal profession.
Many of these law students and newly matriculated lawyers feel tremendous economic pressure as a result of looming obligations of loan debt, feelings which often take priority over the ideals that inspired a student to attend law school in the first place. These circumstances are exacerbated by the recent reports published in theLaw Journal that employment for recent law graduates hit an 18-year low and that more than 40 percent of recently graduated law students are not working in jobs requiring a law degree.
What I have learned is that not much has changed over the years in terms of the law student’s perception of success. Students have hardly mastered the anxiety of being in the strange land of the Socratic method before the drumbeat of employment after graduation begins to sound. It starts with a soft yet discernible pressure-filled rumble in the distance and increases in volume and clarity with the passing of each semester. By the end of the second year, the drumbeat is either overwhelming to those who have focused any attention on job opportunities or nonexistent to those students who have worked hard to avoid the growing stress the sound creates. By the beginning of the third year, the drumbeat is impossible to escape as each school-related gathering is filled with students discussing interviews, résumés, clerkships and job placement.
The brass ring as defined by most law school cultures is the prospect of landing a job in a “Big Law” firm willing to pay enough to provide an immediate positive return on investment. Does the failure of the majority of students to even be considered for a simple interview with a “Big Law” firm mean you have somehow failed as a law student or will likely fail as a lawyer?
The stress and disappointment experienced by so many students cries out for change. Realistic expectations for law students need to be addressed early on in law school — preferably, as part of the application process. Cultural perceptions of law school success should also evolve. Students need to be provided with more realistic expectations of the likelihood that they will secure a high-paying job upon graduation. They also need legitimate advice on the types of opportunities a degree in law will provide.
Perhaps more importantly, the law school curriculum needs to be altered to better prepare law students for the practical and economic realities of the practice of law, outside of the “Big Law,” environment that few law students will ever experience. Few if any recent law graduates are prepared to survive professionally or economically on their own. Graduates have no idea how to establish and run a law office, let alone build the client base necessary to support a law practice, and most are not even taught basic case evaluation techniques.
Law school programs need to directly address the business of law. After all, practicing law is both a skill and a business for most attorneys, and the business of practicing law can be just as difficult as any other component. Rather than adequately address these skills, many law schools spend their resources trying to boost their U.S. News & World Report ratings. The majority of law schools spend little to no time preparing students for the realities of the world upon graduation.
The American Bar Association should require programs that focus on the business of law, coupled with externships in the third year of law school, which would provide students with the opportunity to learn the skills needed to survive and be a competent lawyer upon graduation. It would alarm the public, and it should alarm our profession, to consider that you can earn a J.D. without ever drafting an actual complaint, attending a deposition, setting foot in a courtroom, witnessing a real estate closing or even drafting a basic will.
Externships should include both private practice and public service. Required externships are a win-win situation for everyone involved. Law students participating in such programs are better prepared for their craft, mentored by experienced practitioners and develop confidence and self-esteem. Practicing lawyers willing to devote the time to mentoring a law student also benefit by additional assistance and the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to elevate the overall competence level of our profession. Law schools would not only have happier and more productive students, but also happier and more productive alumni. Law schools also benefit by developing extensive contacts with members of the legal profession generally missing today.
It is time for the law schools to redefine the perception of a successful law school experience and of what it means to be a successful attorney. In the meantime, those of us blessed to practice in this great profession can help bridge the gap between the reality and the myth of practicing law by reaching out to help our young colleagues find their path to a rewarding legal career. You will find, as I have, that the reward is worth the effort.