An earthquake in US legal education
If you are feeling miserable about lawyer problems in our jurisdiction, read this and put your feelings in perspective. Last week, I wrote about going to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) annual meeting to learn. Well, here comes the most important thing I discovered: the legal education system in the USA is going through an earthquake which is likely to topple existing structures.
The following interesting statements indicate the kind of earthquake taking place: the number of law school applicants has dropped by 25% in the last two years; Columbia Law School's average graduate debt for the class of 2011 was reported to the ABA as $133,000, and there are views that law graduate debt is under-reported and rising all the time; tuition at public law schools has risen by about 1,000% since 1985, when the average in-state fee was $2,000; the dean of the University of Illinois College of Law says that it has given scholarships to every member of the class of 2014, costing the school $3.6m; there are at least 15 lawsuits targeting law schools around the country for allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation of employment information (such as placement record of law graduates in full-time law-professional jobs within nine months of graduation).
Do you get the picture? Everything in the preceding paragraph is linked. Far fewer people are applying to law schools because of the huge debt they will be faced with on graduation ($200,000 is not unusual) and the difficulty of finding a job afterwards to pay off the debt. US law schools are, as a result, becoming desperate to attract students, because otherwise they will be faced with closure. There are articles and blogs galore outlining these problems, with law students furious at being misled into what some consider a lifetime of ‘debt slavery’. There is also concern that the brightest are turning away from applying for law because of the consequent debt and future job uncertainty.
As a result, the ABA’s outgoing president announced just before the recent annual meeting opened in Chicago that a task force has been established to review and make recommendations on the state of legal education and its responsiveness to the needs and opportunities of the legal market. About time, you might say! ‘The growing public attention to the cost of a law school education, the uncertain job prospects for law school graduates and the delivery of legal services in a changing market warrant substantial examination and analysis by the ABA and the legal profession,’ he said. The chair of the task force, a former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, stated that ‘the task force will solicit views in the widest way possible to help us identify how the bench, bar and legal education community can work together to provide meaningful opportunities for law students and graduates that benefit clients and the public at large.’ The task force is expected to finish its work in 2014.
Other signs of the impending collapse of the status quo are as follows: many potential law students are aggressively negotiating scholarship offers from competing schools, since it is now a buyer’s market; on the other hand, lower-ranked law schools are suffering, since the higher-ranked ones are accepting students who would otherwise go to the lower-ranked ones; and it is reported that the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law sent letters to successful students saying: ‘We very much hope you find this offer competitive with others you have received’ - if not, ‘Please let us know.’
How does this compare to Europe? We have some of the same problems as the USA – too many law graduates for too few jobs. The professions in Spain and Italy, for instance, are over-staffed with lawyers who cannot find jobs. But, in the European way, the state funds much more of legal education and the costs for students are lower, so that no head of steam has built up with law students claiming fraud after being seduced into an expensive education that leads nowhere and saddles them with gigantic debt.
The ABA is sensitive to the needs of the newly qualified lawyer, too. In a move to help junior lawyers who have to move to another US state in search of employment, it passed a new model rule at the annual meeting. Lawyers seeking to practise in another US state through what is called ‘admission by motion’ (ie without taking a bar exam in that new state) need to have actively practised law for only three of the past five years, instead of for five of the last seven years. ‘Admission by motion’ procedures exist in 40 US states, and the ABA is urging the rest to adopt it.
The economic crisis - for this is partly, although not wholly, behind the US legal education earthquake - is taking its toll everywhere in the industrialised world, including on the legal profession.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs.