Law Schools Owe Students More Than Candor

Law schools are being targeted by the media and by former students for failing to provide adequate information about actual employment of graduates, and for graduating more lawyers than the market can bear. Candor and market sensitivity are important, but they are effects – not causes. Law schools owe their students and prospective students not only candor about employment numbers -  more importantly, they owe students an education that will adequately prepare them for that job when they get there.

In the past, when law school was less expensive, some young adults chose to go to law school just to enhance their intellectual understanding of the world in which we live – or maybe even to buy some time. That was a luxury that is no longer feasible.  Now law school is not just an intellectual exercise. For almost all students, it is preparation for a career. Further, a dramatic market shift has caused firms (and their clients) to rethink the traditional model that found firms mentoring and training new lawyers. Technology and outsourcing have also changed the way firms handle much of the entry-level legal work that once kept inexperienced lawyers busy. Law school is no longer just the prelude to the real education –  which occurred once the lawyer was on-the-job.

And, jobs in the legal field are becoming increasingly hard to find. In spite of a modest bump in October, we’re still down 3,000 law jobs since a year ago. And by the beginning of 2011, it was estimated that 15,000 legal jobs (including lawyers and staff) had been lost since 2008. Meanwhile, law schools are ushering new lawyers into the legal profession in great numbers, with 40,000 law graduates in the spring of 2010 alone.

So, what should law schools be doing differently? Certainly,  a prospective law student has the right to know the employment statistics emanating out of a particular law school - - not only because that impacts the long term likelihood of employability for that student, but also because it reflects upon the perceived quality of education that school provides. There has been a growing urgency to push the American Bar Association to require increased transparency and accuracy in the job placement numbers schools produce each year. Those who support transparency believe schools owe prospective students the same level of candor to which lawyers are bound in their professional lives. It seems fair to suggest that a student who entrusts his or her professional training and maybe even success to a particular school deserves candor in return.

But, the real question is what law schools can do – and are doing – to prepare their students for this new reality. The need today is for law school graduates who are more practice-ready. The question is how best to achieve that.

The Carnegie model, which blends substantive doctrine with practical experience and professional commitment, offers law schools and legal educators a way to graduate law students who are more practice-ready. Students who know the law and also know how to apply it bring tangible value to resource-strapped firms. Consider the new lawyer who has already drafted discovery documents or conducted a deposition. Or the new lawyer who knows how to conduct an initial interview with a potential family law client.

Yes, lawyers will still need training throughout their careers. And, yes, they will still need mentoring. We all do. But going to a school that embraces the Carnegie model means students can do much more than “find the courthouse” when they graduate. They can bring value to an employer and find their place in a legal system that, though volatile with change and uncertainty, is consistent in its need for quality lawyers.

Ultimately, it not just about whether students will have jobs: it is about whether they will be ready for them. The law schools that students choose should be those that are not only forthcoming about the percentages of their students who find law-related positions after graduation, and that perform well by that measure. But also, the schools that students choose should prepare them for those jobs, with the knowledge, practical skills and understanding of professional identity that will make them better employees – and better lawyers. Not just the facts, ma’am – but the foundation.