Taking The Training Wheels off of Legal Education in America

I just read, “Applying the Alternative Fee Model to Law School Tuition” by Ari Kaplan, which you can find here.  The basic jist is that we should re-work how students pay for law schools and look into alternative tuition arrangements.  Among the solutions Ari endorses is one where students pay $5000 per semester in their first year, and if they decided law school was garbage, they could quit and only be 10k in the hole, but then they would still walk away with pseudo-paralegal certificate.  Mind you, in the first year of law school, you learn next to nothing that is  applicable in the real world (let alone the next two years, in most law schools) and no amount of Socratic learning will properly prepare you for your boss saying: “File this with the Court.”  Other ideas include providing “Early Exit Counseling”, which, I believe, translates to “It’s cool if you quit.  Stop crying, please.”  Finally, Ari proposes dropping the cost of a $150,000 legal education by allowing sponsors to advertise on students’ $200 textbooks and make these textbooks available on a Kindle or an iPad, thereby further reducing costs.   I don’t doubt that Ari has some decent ideas and I don’t blame him for proposing them.  In fact, I appreciate the fact that he did.  But honestly, let’s cut the crap and speak like grown ups .

Law School is a Choice  

Let us pretend for a few moments that us lawyers actually had a hand in deciding to go to law school.  Let us pretend that we knew specifically what it was that we were getting into.  Let us pretend, for a moment, that we didn’t fork over all this money, equivalent to buying a home in the Mid-West, by relying solely on a 3 page glossy brochure.  We went.  We knew the deal going in.  If we can agree to this premise, then we can move on to the following:

Law School Was Never Intended As A Career for Everyone

It’s pretty important to note that law school applications didn’t rise by 20% recently because thousands of college graduates had an opportunity to watch some really exciting scenes from Law and Order, for the older matriculated students, Matlock, and decide that this was fun and exciting and they should pursue it.  Applications went through the roof because young adults, who couldn’t get a job paying over 30k no matter how hard they tried, decided to continue education and hope that “stuff” clears up in a few years.  That’s not to say everyone did this, but I can guarantee you that there was no “Come to Jesus” moment that happened in 2008.  Or 2009.  Or 2010.  People applied because they had to.  Not because they wanted to.  Yes, there were exceptions to this.  Yes, some people always wanted to be lawyers.  But there’s no way you can convince me that those people were in the majority.  The reality is that the people who want to be public servants, the one’s we actually NEED in this profession, aren’t going anymore, because it’s just not worth it.  They can’t afford it.  They made a calculation in their heads.   And that’s an absolute shame.  Because we don’t need a glut of decent attorneys for decent firms.  We need exceptional attorneys defending the constitutional rights of individuals when state and federal budgets for courts and Legal Aid are slashed left and right across this country.

Law School is a Business and Business’ Make Money

If you want to find a way to reform law school, then it can’t be the law schools that do the reforming.  My firm earns its revenue from Bankruptcy and Real Estate work.  If there was a call to lower Bankruptcy and Real Estate fees and make them standard across the board, it’s not going to be the Bankruptcy and Real Estate lawyers who answer that call.  Because it’s a business.  And the more we hear about how to change the way legal education is taught the less we talk about the reduction of the cost of legal education.  The ABA president recently gave a speech where he blamed law students for being unemployed.  He’s completely off base and ridiculously out of touch but you know what wasn’t discussed?  Changing the very business of law school. And it won’t be.  Which brings me to my next point:

If You Want to Change the Price of Law Schools, Cut a Year

You don’t need the third year.  You need two years, max.  Your thinking changes the first year. Second year it gets crystallized in your head.  In the third year you’re taking electives which make you no better as a lawyer.  Want to see if you like employment law?  Intern.  Want to make sure criminal law is the right fit for you? Sit in court for a few afternoons.  Or ask a defense attorney about their practice.  Or ask 5.  But you’re not going to have any idea of what it’s like to be a Bankruptcy lawyer by reading case law from California.  The third year should be clinical work and clinical work only.  That way, when a graduate does get a job, if there is a job to actually get, they know to do…. stuff.

Don’t Be Scared to Quit:

We have this absurd philosophy surrounding quitting.  I personally know of no one who ended up homeless after they quit law school.  No one threw eggs at them when they crossed the street.  If a student doesn’t like law school, the student should, for the love of God, quit law school.  It doesn’t mean the student is some failure.  To the contrary, it means that student has an inclination about what they DON’T want to do with the rest of their lives, which is more than I can say for other people I know.  Students also don’t need “Exit Counseling” if they decide to quit.  They don’t need to be told by an administrator that they should spread their wings and fly.  They should be told that if they work in some form of government or community service for a few years, their debt would be forgiven.  You’d have scores of people headed for the exits if this was implemented.  But it’s not.  And it wont be.  Because no one wants to be the person who tells a student at a 3rd tier law school that they’re likely going to be an associate at a Personal Injury defense firm pushing compliance conference orders across the table, rather than the next Justice Sotomayor.  Steve Jobs quit college.  Bill Gates did too.  You think it’s a big deal if you walk away from Cooley after a year because you realize you don’t like the law?  Everyone will survive.  You’re no worse for it.

No Clinical Courses Can Make up for the Fact that Economy Sucks

I was, and still am, on the bandwagon of those who want to incorporate clinical and work experience for law students.  Students should know how to do legal research and file a case.  And that will do wonders for them…unless and until their employer closes up shop.  There are simply too many lawyers and not enough jobs out there.  We keep dancing around this issue as if it’s not right in front of our faces.  If there’s no money in the coffers to pay for Susan to work at the firm, it really doesn’t matter much if Susan knows how to file a Habeas Corpus motion on Day 1.  Because the Firm can’t afford paper. Until this economy turns around, it’s simply senseless to suggest that there will be some magical pill that cures the woes of recent graduates.

Student Loans Are the Next Bubble

There is currently over ONE TRILLION DOLLARS in Student Loan debt across this country right now. That’s with a mother effin “T”.  People call me every day and want to file Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in New York because their student loan debt is literally choking them.  In 70% of cases in this office, an individual’s student loan DWARFS their credit card debt.  And they can’t do a thing, because unless you have some exceptional circumstances, student loan debt cannot be discharged in a Bankruptcy.  Mind you much of this debt is for private student loans.  And that number keeps growing as tuition increases (WINK WINK).   The ones that have much higher interest rates.  The ones that big boy banks underwrite and then trade (remember mortgage securities, folks? That was a fun time.)  To even suggest that you’re going to solve any problem dealing with the price of law school without massive reform of the Student Loan system and all of its players is ridiculous.

It’s Up To The Student

The real bargaining power comes from the prospective student.  And so it should.  If you want to be a lawyer and make money, you still can.  There are so many people out there who do.  Not just the people at Skadden or Sullivan. Mid size firms and even small ones have plenty of people who actually are able to pay the bills and still like their profession.  But it’s so much harder to do now then it was even five years ago.  We cannot rely on the very institutions that make huge profits from the pockets of law students to somehow change the way they do business…to make less profit.   It’s silly.  There will certainly be some cosmetic changes in the next few years.  But serious change won’t come from them.  We have the answers.  We all know that if we cut a year from law school, cap the amount of interest that student loan companies can charge and create lawyers who actually work for the public good in exchange for loan forgiveness, we’d completely revitalize the profession.  But who do you expect will do this? Congress (I know, I’m laughing too.)  The banks?  Law Schools?  No.  The decision is up to you and you alone.  It’s a chance and a choice.  Like everything else in life.  Cost/Benefit.

Ari Kaplan is right in that we are at a watershed moment.  But it’s not a moment about how he re-tool the cost of Legal Education. We know how to do that. It’s not whether we should let Coca Cola advertise on an Emanuel Law Outline to subsidize the cost of a textbook. It’s a really about whether or not it’s still worth it to go in the first place. It’s a question that should be asked constantly.  It’s a question that will only get louder and louder as more people apply for fewer and fewer jobs out there.  And that answer is up to the individual, as it should be.