Advocates for Starving Advocates

Legal Residency Proposal Dodges Meaningful Reform

PROGRAM WOULD SERVE NO TANGIBLE BENEFIT TO STUDENTS

Even math-challenged attorneys can tell you that four plus three plus two equals nine. That number, by itself, represents a lot of things to different people, from a Ted Williams jersey to a cat’s lives to the magical ingredient in Herman Cain’s elixir for tax reform. But if a new idea comes to fruition in the legal field, the number nine will also represent the minimum number of years that a college-bound freshman would have to wait before landing a job as an attorney.

Recently, Rutgers School of Law Dean John Farmer, took the position that the law profession is broken and that the magical cure-all to the myriad of persistent problems is the legal residency. Like its medical counterpart, it would theoretically place newly minted lawyers at law firms for two-year stints at cut-rate salaries. In these positions, attorneys would presumably gain practical experience with law firms that would be awash with skilled, educated, cheap labor. Dean Farmer’s plan is further couched in fluffy language about the need to make legal services available and affordable to people priced out of the current system, and that by hiring a bunch of residents, law firms would be able to serve this important function. So let’s take a big picture look at what is necessary to become a lawyer under his plan.

Essentially, it amounts to four years of undergraduate education (and tuition), three years of law school education (and tuition), and two years of an underpaid residency post. Given that the idea won’t reduce the amount of money going to institutions of higher learning, it’s no wonder this gem comes from a law school dean. The idea also doesn’t appear to have been well thought out.

We practice law, not medicine. Now I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the work of attorneys, but it basically includes research, analysis, application, writing, and for some, representation in court. To falsely equate the amount of training for that to the amount needed for medical diagnoses and surgeries misses some very key distinctions between the professions. Doctors hold the health and well-being of people in their hands, literally. They need practical, hands-on learning experiences, and a lot of them, in order to be entrusted with such responsibility. Lawyers also need practical experience, but truly innovative plans to reform the field can integrate those experiences into a three-year law school program. They’re called clinics and externships and co-ops, and they keep the burden of equipping lawyers with practical skills with those who are paid to bear it — the law schools. Might something similar to a residency be important to attorney development? Sure, and the viability of such proposals should be considered. But too many members of academia seem to be floating these ideas as a way to avoid making meaningful changes to legal education rather than to genuinely help students.

Look at who stands to benefit from a legal residency program versus who stands to sacrifice. The undergraduate institutions still get to educate and collect from students eager to obtain the bachelors degree that’s required to enter law school. The law schools still get to keep their archaic three-year curriculum and pocket three year’s worth of tuition. The law firms don’t need to change the pay structures of partners or more senior associates, and they’ll be theoretically overrun with new recruits who they can now pay relative pennies to while the partners reap the financial rewards. Sure more people might be able to gain access to legal services, but is this really the best way to go about ensuring that? Are the large law firms as currently constituted the best vehicles to drive this change forward? Given what they’ve done already, do we really trust them with this important task (some would say they are not)? Once again the burden will be borne by those in the worst position to do so, the law students and recent graduates. They’ll have seven years worth of education loans, likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. After that, they can look forward to two more years of apprenticeship at a paltry salary as compared to their fellow lawyers as interest accumulates on those loans, with no job waiting at the end of it. And the dean’s answer to this? “The law firms should be required, under this proposal, to offer stipends to help those residents who don’t make the cut but have debt burdens.” So not only do law schools continue to receive what amount to federal subsidies in the form of federal graduate student loans, now they get to further justify high tuition rates by saying that law firms will be required to provide debt-laden former residents with stipends to cover loan repayment after school? Proponents are likely to argue that students and recent grads do benefit from the proposal, in the form of real-world experiences and networking opportunities. Sure, but is this really the best way to open up these benefits to students and new attorneys?

Administrators should be asking what combination of in-class and practical education is required to train an attorney as part of a law school curriculum. That’s their starting point and it’s the biggest issue I have with the dean’s proposal. He wants to increase the requirements for law students and recent graduates not because that added experience is necessary to train a lawyer, but because higher-ups in the legal education field want to have their cake (tuition) and eat (spend) it too. Proposals like this make it appear like the legal education industry is making every effort to wring out every last concession and alteration from students and employers in order  to avoid any changes to the ways in which they the schools 1) educate students, and 2) get paid.

At its heart, the law school is operating just like a law firm. It’s made up largely of lawyers. Those at the top — partners, deans, and professors — profit off of the efforts and payments of associates and students. The system becomes incapable of meaningful change because those at the top cannot and will not contemplate a decrease in their share or a cut in unnecessary overhead costs. Thus, you get the nonsense that the mouthpieces of these profit-making enterprises regularly regurgitate in print and at conferences.

Because law school is an essential and rewarding experience, it has to be saved from itself. The foundation of legal education reform should be a desire to equip young lawyers with the skills necessary to serve the people. School administrators need to look themselves in the mirror and ask whether should really take nine years of higher education to do so. If anyone can answer the question in the affirmative with a straight face and back it up, I’m happy to listen. More likely, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ And if it is a ‘no,’ then something far more cynical is going on in the schools and firms of our profession.

Jon Cohen is a founding partner at Boston MicroLaw, LLP, a practice of business formation attorneys and general outside counsel for small businesses in Boston and Cambridge, MA. 

BC Law Dean Thinks It’s Time to Inform Naive Undergrads

SCREAMING EAGLE: Vincent Rougeau, Dean of BC Law, says it's time to inform undergrads on the realities of law school.

BUT MANAGING EXPECTATIONS WILL NOT MAKE A BETTER LAW SCHOOL

SCREAMING EAGLE: Vincent Rougeau, Dean of BC Law, says it's time to inform undergrads on the realities of law school.

SCREAMING EAGLE: Vincent Rougeau, Dean of BC Law, says it’s time to inform undergrads on the realities of law school.

The condescending notion that prospective law students need to be educated on “reality” in order to “fix law school” is uttered far too frequently. Vincent Rougeau, Dean of Boston College Law School, promoted this red herring in his recent U.S. News & World Report article, “Four Ways to Fix Law School.” His ideas to mend the system include more hands-on learning and exposure to international law in law school, more post-graduation partnerships with employers for recent graduates, and the radical idea that prospective law students should be told what they’re getting into. Those first three ideas are important  and indeed many schools have moved or are moving toward similar innovations. But the last idea is misguided, narrowly focused and even dangerous.

Rougeau mistakenly assumes that law students don’t know what they’re getting into. Puzzling, since this same group of people are often characterized as intelligent, diligent, and thorough. Certainly they possess the ingenuity and cleverness to investigate law schools and weigh their options. One hopes that they had the common sense to do so prior to making the commitment. As long as the information offered by schools is accurate, open, honest, and reflective of actual realities instead of manipulated to boost a school’s rankings, prospective law students will be able to make the determination for themselves.

He also shares the mistaken belief that law students think that the degree entitles them to a six-figure salary post-graduation, and that this is what drives them to attend law school. Firstly, not all law students elect to attend for the money. Reasons vary, and law schools should be ready to accommodate students regardless of motivation. Secondly, those who do attend for the big payday don’t believe that the J.D. is an automatic ticket to it. They strive and compete for grades and internships to position themselves for those lucrative jobs. While many of those have dried up, try convincing someone who wants to go to law school to make a lot of money not to do so because they won’t be the one to land that six-figure job.

The idea irresponsibly draws attention away from real reforms that law students and recent graduates need most. Measures that will help students and recent grads with mounting debt, shrinking salaries, and fewer job prospects. While Rougeau correctly points out that law schools must add programs that enhance students’ practical skills and job prospects, he neglects to address the other half of the equation. Namely, what law schools need to subtract in order to meet the needs of students. For instance, nowhere in his article does he mention costs or inflated tuition (BC charged $43,170 in 2012-2013). Without a discussion of costs, a law school’s commitment to real reform can’t be taken seriously. This doesn’t just mean freezing tuition, it means lowering it. It means fewer school facilities with unnecessary bells and whistles. It means a two-year program option. And it means either lowering salaries of administrators and professors, or demanding more from them to justify those salaries. If law students need to be educated about the realities of law school and their prospects thereafter, administrators and professors need a lesson about the realities of a 40 hour work week and merit-based salary scale.

The argument that efforts to fix law school must include lowering expectations of law students is nonsensical. Schools must improve the product, not manage the expectations of the customer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jon Cohen is a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP, a firm of small business attorneys in Boston, and a recent graduate of the Northeastern University School of Law. He swears he researched the average annual salary for an entry-level attorney before he entered law school.

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Cut Classes, Cut Costs

Milk

ELIMINATING 3L WOULD HELP STUDENTS MANAGE COSTS

Make Law Schools Earn a Third Year, a thoughtful piece in last week’s New York Times, discussed potential law school reforms that could make life a little easier for their recent graduates. The idea of an option to take the bar exam after two years struck me as a no-brainer while I was studying for the bar this past summer, relearning areas of the law that I’d forgotten since first year, or coming across frequently tested material for the first time. The article’s authors, Daniel B. Rodriguez and Samuel Estreicher, correctly point to the benefits of such a plan, among the most compelling being the reduction of sky-high costs for law students by shaving off a full year’s tuition. Needless to say, the legal world needs more creative innovations like this to help students and recent graduates limit debt.

We all know that tuition and living expenses during law school routinely exceed $60,000. But the expenses for recent graduates and budding attorneys don’t end with a J.D. They continue to add up at a time when access to funding (i.e. student loan payments) begins to dry up. Application fees for the bar exam vary, but most states require recent graduates to pay hundreds of dollars. Then the same graduates regularly drop over $3,000 on bar review courses. If test-takers want to use laptops, the required software can cost more than $100. If someone wants to take two bar exams, say in New York and Massachusetts, that’s two bar application fees, the bar review course (with higher tuition for two-state programs), extra supplemental materials for the additional state, and inexplicably, two payments to the same software company for the same exam-taking software. After successfully passing an exam, active bar membership fees become due. Add to these expenses other costs that are practically essential to new attorneys seeking to establish themselves, such as bar association memberships, research access, and malpractice insurance, and the bill gets pretty high, especially for the 50 percent of recent law graduates who are unemployed out of school. Cutting tuition rates for law school is a key component to any debt-reduction strategy for recent law students. But we shouldn’t forget how quickly that the litany of smaller costs required to start participating in the legal profession add up and impose burdens on the backs of the legal community’s youngest, and most underemployed members.

As Rodriguez and Estreicher point out, making 3L optional would also force schools to make it more attractive if they want to retain enrollment. This could lead to more practical, skills-based coursework for the third year. It would also keep students enrolled and receiving loan payments at a time when that cash flow could help divert the expenses of obtaining a license. It is in these lean months — studying for the bar, unemployed (and essentially unemployable with no license and no free time) — that grads can fall prey to private lenders to help cover living expenses and the cost of bar prep.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jon Cohen is a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, a firm of small business attorneys in Boston, and a 2012 graduate of the Northeastern University School of Law. Email him at jcohen@bostonmicrolaw.com.