Vincent Rougeau is the dean of Boston College Law School
The American legal profession is facing challenges unlike any we have witnessed before. The average debt load of law school students continues to increase, major law firms have slashed the number of entry-level associates they hire, and observers do not expect a return to the days when graduates could expect to earn six-figure salaries despite little training in the day-to-day practice of law. Add in the extraordinary worldwide economic uncertainty, and one begins to wonder what type of future exists for new lawyers. Under the circumstances, does it even make sense to go to law school?
As a law school dean and an attorney, I say that it does, but that now is the time for law schools to change the way they operate, and for the legal profession and American law schools to redefine their relationship. Here are four ways that law schools can respond to these challenges:
- Create more partnerships with employers to transition recent law graduates into practice. One of these pathways to practice might be apprenticeships similar to medical residencies, something that has long been the practice for lawyers in the United Kingdom and Canada. These would be paid positions that would allow new lawyers to support themselves, but both employer and employee would recognize training as an integral part of the experience. The trainee could then move into regular employment with the employer, or could enter the job market with marketable experience.
- Establish academic programs to better prepare graduates for the workforce. A good education must offer strong academic and theoretical content, but it also must provide preparation for working as a lawyer. Experiential learning through vehicles such as legal assistance clinics, simulation activities, and in-practice placements must become a more significant part of the law school experience, particularly at a time when the National Association for Law Placement reports that only 64 percent of 2010 law graduates had jobs in the actual practice of law nine months after graduation. Legal educators and accreditors should develop appropriate ways to determine how those learning experiences contribute academically to the three years of legal education. Not all schools will provide these experiences in the same way—but all must offer more hands-on learning and skills training.
- Educate students about the realities of law school before they apply. Too many prospective students choose to attend law school because they think the majority of graduates are handed six-figure salaries, when in reality, the median starting salary for recent grads with full-time jobs is $63,000. There are many good reasons to want to become a lawyer, but a high salary shouldn't be the only one. I propose partnerships among pre-law advisers, the Association of American Law Schools, and the American Bar Association, to formalize programs that educate high school and undergraduate students about what it is really like to go to law school and to practice law. Law schools spend a lot of time trying to convince everyone to come. They should spend an equal amount of time helping students decide whether law school is right for them in the first place.
- Reflect the realities of an integrated global economic environment. Most American law schools have done a good job at creating curricula that will prepare students to practice law anywhere in the United States, but now is the time to position American law schools as world leaders in legal education. There are already signs that more students from outside of the country are looking to the United States for their primary legal education, not just for graduate degrees and specialty credentials. This presents an extraordinary opportunity for U.S. law schools to add value to their educational experience by preparing students for the growth of transnational legal practice and the development of a cadre of legal practitioners whose education and practice is not limited to one national legal system.
Uncertain times tend to be the incubators of innovation and opportunity. It can be reassuring to cling to ideas and structures from the past, even when they are no longer suited to the realities of the world in which we now live. But American legal education is at a critical moment, and those of us who run law schools have important choices to make. If we are nimble and strategic, we can be that much more certain that American law schools will remain at the forefront of providing one of the most rigorous, sought-after and rewarding experiences in higher education.
- Law Admissions Lowdown
- As Student Loan Default Rates Rise, Is the Law School Bubble Bursting?
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.