Synopsis: Students graduating from law school are having an increasingly difficult time finding work in their field these days. To make matters worse, many of them are burdened by six-figure student loan debt. For those who do find jobs at law firms, their rise to partner can be a very long and arduous one – if they get there at all. We talk to two legal specialists about what’s causing these problems, and what law schools and law firms can do to help alleviate them.
Guests: Steven J. Harper, retired partner, Kirkland & Ellis, adjunct professor Northwestern University College of Arts & Sciences and School of Law, author of The Lawyer Bubble: A profession in crisis; Gregg Bertram, President of Pacific ADR Consulting, a mediation and arbitration firm based in Seattle.
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The Lawyer Bubble
Gary Price: There’s been a lot of talk about student loan debt and the young graduates who can’t get jobs or who have to work for low wages and aren’t able to pay off their loans. Among the most in debt are law graduates because law school is so expensive and jobs in the legal field are not plentiful. Even those lucky grads who find themselves at good law firms can have a rough time of it since the practice of law has changed to be more of a business, focused on billable hours, and grinding associates down with long days of hard work — and a long road to make partner. Steven Harper thinks that these problems are hurting the practice of law. Harper is the author of The Lawyer Bubble: A profession in crisis. He’s also a retired partner of the firm of Kirkland & Ellis and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University in the College of Arts and Sciences and in the law school. Harper says he wrote the book because he noticed a worrying trend in the profession.
Steven Harper: I observed the trends in our profession generally that I thought were taking the profession in an unfortunate direction. We were getting extraordinarily high rates of attorney dissatisfaction, unhappy lawyers, depression, substance abuse. I mean the whole experience of being a lawyer, particularly in big firms where I practiced for 30 years was changing in very dramatic ways that I thought were kind of unfortunate. So, one of the things that I wanted to do, and I was invited by the Provost at Northwestern to develop whatever kind of course I wanted to do it, is make sure you know what you’re getting into. Because even back in the days when I was applying to law school there were lots of kids who were going to law school as a default solution because they didn’t know what to do next.
Price: He says that many students who attend law school expecting to get a good job and help humanity find out that it’s not the Atticus Finch or Perry Mason profession they expected. While he was teaching his class the recession hit, and that created a whole new set of issues.
Harper: What are we going to do with all these lawyers? We were churning out – we still are churning out – twice as many lawyers every year from law schools as there are legal jobs for them to do.
Price: Students who attend law school because they don’t yet know what they want to do with their lives, and who don’t find jobs in the legal field afterward, find that it was an extraordinarily expensive stop-gap. But why is law school so expensive? All you need is a classroom, desks, a blackboard, some books and a teacher.
Harper: You’re asking the right question. I’ve always said, “Give me 10 students, I’m not even sure I need a classroom – if it’s a nice day we’ll go outside. You don’t need a lot of the stuff that goes with what is now a legal education. You don’t need big buildings that are going up all over the place, you don’t need a lot of the faculty, for example, are extremely underworked compared to the kind of teaching loads that they would have had 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, but they’re expensive. And there’s another component of this too, although I think it’s become less true in recent years, but for a long time universities that had law schools viewed, properly so or understandably so, I should say, law schools as cash cows. They would be, in a sense, a profit center for the university. What does it actually cost to train a lawyer was a lot lower than what they were charging.
Price: Worse yet are the law schools that charge students like a top-tier institution but where the majority of students don’t find jobs in the profession.
Harper: If you look at the quality of the legal education as measured by the ability of a graduate from that law school to get a job that requires the degree, there’s very little distinction in what the law schools charge, but there are dramatic differences in the employment opportunities that students have coming out. There’s a law school in the Boston area called Suffolk. The average debt for a Suffolk law school graduate is $139,000. Well, at Harvard the average debt for a law student is $150,000. But the difference is the Suffolk graduate, the employment rate for the class last year in terms of legal jobs, full time, that require a bar passage – 47%. Harvard is 90%. You go all over the place and you find the same thing. Why would a student coming out of the University of Detroit with a 37% chance of essentially of getting a legal job have $137,000 of student debt, whereas a student at a top-rate University of Michigan has only $5,000 more debt but an 82% placement rate. And you can go all over the country and find those kinds of problems.
Price: One reason might be that it’s easier to get into those fringe schools than it is to get into a prestige one.
Harper: You would have thought over the last seven or eight years, and a lot of people in the academic world were predicting with the tremendous collapse in the demand for legal services, there are going to be law schools that close, there’ll be law schools that can’t attract enough students. Well, guess what? All they’ve done is lowered their admissions standards so that 10 years ago, based on the number of applicants you had about a 50% chance of being accepted in a law school someplace. Well, last year that number went up to 80%. Just about anybody, regardless of their qualifications, can find a law school that will take them.
Price: Some students have tried to sue these low-performing law schools – something you’d imagine a lawyer would do – but to no avail. Gregg Bertram is president of Pacific ADR, a mediation and arbitration firm based in Seattle, Washington. He says that funding for student loans is a real come-on for some fringe law colleges and they can make a lot of money from students who dream of a legal career.
Gregg Bertram: It’s a moneymaker for these law schools and I don’t think they do have elaborate facilities but they’re in it to make money, and not so coincidentally, they’re graduates fare the worst in terms of trying to get a legally related job after graduation. The percentages are very low and they have been the subjects of lawsuits by former students that have all been unsuccessful by the student. The New York Times published an article about the latest such law suit and what its fate was in front of a jury, so the reason it’s so expensive is because they have been operated as profit centers.
Price: Those students who do graduate, pass the bar and secure employment at a law firm are considered lucky. Well, that depends on what kind of life you expected to live. Bertram says that the days of learning the law by being mentored by an older, more experienced lawyer are, for the most part, a thing of the past.
Bertram: One of the effects of the recession in these large firms that hire six or 10 or 12 lawyers a year has been to extend the years for eligibility to become a partner. It used to be five years, then seven, now nine or 10, at least. So it is survival of the fittest but over an incredibly long, stressful period. And only a minority of those who begin are going to reach the finish line. And I think there’s a real question in terms of quality of life. Is it really worth it? I hear complaints of lawyers of my generation that young lawyers don’t want to work as hard as “we” had to. They want, I guess what we could laughingly call, normal lives. They want to do things with their significant others, their kids, and older-generation lawyers don’t like that too much because it does affect their billable hours.
Price: Harper agrees and says that very few of the new associates hired on at a big firm will move up to become a full partner, because the road to that goal is long and hard and not for the faint of heart. So what should law firms do to create a more equitable, less stressful environment for new lawyers? Harper says that the answer isn’t difficult to figure out; it’s just hard to convince firms to implement it.
Harper: I can list a bunch of things too that are not likely to happen any time soon, but they could eliminate billable hour requirements, they could move their whole business model away from billable hours to focus on results. And clients, frankly, are increasingly demanding that kind of thing. Many clients have figured out that the billable hour is anathema to the efficient delivery of legal services. In what other business could you, for example, if you asked a painter to paint your house and he came up to you and he said, “Well, here’s the thing. I’m not sure how long it’s going to take, you have a pretty big house, but one thing I can tell you for sure is the longer it takes, the more it’s going to cost you.” Who would hire that painter to paint their house? But that’s exactly the way legal services, by and large at least in big firms, are delivered in the United States. The other thing I would do, frankly, is I would figure out, and it’s not that hard to do, but try to figure out a way to rethink what you’re doing within the firm so that when you hire people, you’re not hiring them with the notion that within four years 80% of them – which is what the attrition rate is – 80% of them are going to be gone. Why don’t you try to figure out a way to think about your institution so that you, Number 1, hire people who want to stick around and, Number 2, actually have a place for them in terms of a meaningful career path that will let them think, “You know what? If I stay here, I’ll have a career.”
Price: Changing law schools is also going to be difficult. It’s tough to convince these institutions to lower tuition or award more scholarships – resulting in lower revenues for themselves. But Bertram says that one way to cut down college debt is to cut down the number of years it takes to obtain a law degree.
Bertram: I did not care for law school. I dropped out initially. I didn’t go back for five years, I worked in construction. And when I did go back I got a job while I was in school with a very good law firm. And I spent almost all of my time there and not in class. So I found that work with a law firm on real cases to be invaluable. I think one thing that law schools and lawyers in private practice could do is maybe shorten law school by a year and have one of those years be kind of a practicum where students are working with lawyers on real cases and people’s genuine legal problems. I think the main thing would be to make law school less theoretical and more practical.
Price: It’s ironic that there is a glut of law graduates and a shortage of public defenders and advocates to handle cases for poor people accused of a crime or who need legal help with housing, medical or employment issues. Harper says that government either can’t or won’t appropriate the money to hire more attorneys to take on these cases, so both law grads and the underprivileged suffer. Both Gregg Bertram and Steven Harper hope that students will do some serious soul searching and some research before applying to law schools to make sure that a legal career is really what they want in life. You can read up on the topic in Steven Harper’s book The Lawyer Bubble, available in stores and online. You can also visit his website at stevenjharper.com. Find out more about Gregg Bertram and his mediation and arbitration work at pacificadrconsulting.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.