• An Unchanged Entity
  • November 1, 2010
  • Law Firm: Waller Lansden Dortch Davis LLP - Nashville Office
  • I recently read about a law student who sent a letter to the school’s dean requesting a refund on his legal education. The disgruntled student cited a lack of job prospects and the reality of repaying an enormous student loan debt as the motivation behind the letter.

    Initially, I found the idea laughable. As I considered the issue, however, I began to think that this student may be on to something. I disagree entirely that any law school should refund a student’s money because of poor job prospects. There is a certain level of risk inherent in every decision. Not having a job after graduation is a risk inherent in the decision to attend law school. But, although I disagree with this student’s particular demand, I believe his demand is directed in the right place.

    Due to the recession, many aspects of the legal field have undergone drastic change. Corporations are losing money, causing them to implement serious cost-cutting measures. One such measure is demanding lower legal fees. This has forced law firms and other legal employers to begin looking into cost-cutting measures of their own. The result has been lay-offs, salary cuts and new associate deferments, just to name a few. Even law students have not been spared. Now more than ever, law students are forced to be more flexible and creative in seeking legal employment.

    The one major area in the legal field that has been virtually unaffected is the law school system. Clients, employers, and students have all been negatively affected by the recession. Law schools, however, seem to be doing just fine in this economy. In fact, the New York Times recently reported that there had been  “substantial increases in [law school] applications over last year.” Similarly, tuition at law schools across the nation has increased despite the fact that the demand for lawyers has decreased. There is no change because there are no internal factors within the law school system that would necessitate a change. Thus for change to occur within law schools, the push must come from external forces.

    I predict that this disgruntled law student is the first of many that will begin demanding more from law schools. Again, I would not go as far as suggesting that students should seek a tuition refund. I do, however, believe that law schools should adapt to the current climate of the legal field, and law students and legal employers should begin making that demand. Below are just a few areas in need of change.

    More Transparency in Job Prospects
    Students considering law school should be fully informed on the current climate of their employment prospects. A legal education should begin here so that students can make a more informed decision on whether this investment (or lack thereof) is worth it. Most students entering law school assume that a law degree equates to a job at graduation and a stable career. This assumption just is no longer true. More transparency in this area will minimize the amount of students who feel that they have fallen victim to a “bait and switch.”

    More “Practice-Ready” Attorneys
    For years, I have heard how law school grads are ill-prepared for the practice of law. Three years of law school to become a lawyer and after graduation we know very little about how to be a lawyer. That just does not make sense. Historically, new attorneys were expected to learn how to be a lawyer during their first few years of practice. The recession, however, has caused clients to become reluctant toward paying for legal services provided by young, inexperienced lawyers. Thus, it should fall back on the law schools to produce a better product. Law schools and legal employers should collectively be seeking to craft a law school curriculum that would produce more practice-ready attorneys. They should also be seeking to identify the training and skill sets that potential clients find valuable.

    More Career Counseling
    A common perception of the law school Career Services office is that it simply helps the top students get the top jobs. For everyone else, good luck! Of course, this is an over-generalization. My point, however, is that law schools should be doing more in this area. Law students need career counseling more now than ever. Students are being forced to be more flexible and creative in seeking employment. They are being asked to expand their practice area and geographical preferences. Often, students are being asked to do so with little or no substantive knowledge of the legal job markets. Law students should be engaged in individual career counseling from the day they start law school until the day they graduate. More career counseling will allow students to be better equipped to make these difficult decisions.

    As the legal field continues to undergo changes, it will be interesting to see when and to what extent these changes will filter down to the law school system.