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April 14, 2010

To American law schools: A little help, please?

The tone and atmosphere of an excellent law firm that quickly resolves problems and gets things done?

Often it will be more like Rahm Emanuel, John Wayne or Colonel Bill Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now" commanding brainstorming, hard-ass and fully-engaged troops.

It it will be less like Mr. Rogers or Alan Alda whispering kind and nurturing things to the latest crop of Teletubbies and making sure they are okay. Big Bird and Care Bears in the trenches is not an image most of us wish to project to clients.

We are desperate--and burning daylight and money here. Marc Randazza is a San Diego-based First Amendment specialist who writes The Legal Satyricon. Like the undersigned, he is hard-working, works out of several offices, and is obviously having fun. Randazza is irreverent, "not prissy", passionate, mega-competent, and not concerned about what people think. Hear his April 2 NPR interview on SLAPP suits. Or read about abolition of limitations periods in clergy child abuse cases in "If you’re still Catholic...". He and his other writers don't cower behind "anonymity" when they write. Randazza's his own man, and a stand-up guy.

In short, an American. And none of this would be that unusual except that Marc is an American lawyer. And let's face it. Being eccentric, wild and/or "edgy" in American Lawyerland is not a tough mark to hit. Just wear a bow-tie, tasseled loafers and a trench coat. But maybe, say, in public, and wear them all on once, and on a weekday.

One year ago this week, Marc wrote "The Worthlessness of American Legal Education", a piece we admired and which is certainly worth your time to read. The theme "what should we expect now from law schools, anyway?" has legs at Marc's blog and others.

We've written about that theme--from the standpoint of clients as always being the "main lawyer event"--here at this blog for nearly five years. And written about it enough to know it's a very touchy subject.

In the late summer of 2008, we wondered aloud--and just weeks before the federal government's late "announcement" that there was a "recession goin' on"--on whether law students and recent grads should start paying law firms (yes, new lawyers pay the firms) for training to be lawyers who could add value in a shorter amount of time.

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Law Schools: Weenie Factories? Or Places of Training to add value to client work? Lawyering is not necessarily a "PC", gentle or even genteel culture. Do law schools tell students it is?

In fact, our August 27, 2008 post was probably our most clicked-on but yet "unpopular" piece: "Should associates pay their law firms in the first 2 to 3 years?"

American law schools are some of the most impressive places of higher education in the world. They are exciting intellectually, great think tanks for business, and attract mega-talented humans, particularly in the quality of faculty. They hatch presidents, senators, captains of industry, great authors and diplomats. But many law firms these days are meeting new grads who won't be even marginally productive for two to three years. Or longer. And new grads--at a shop that actually tries to train you--often (not always) "get more" than the firm does out of the relationship in those years.

Law schools, certainly, are not in business to pay students to be trained. Students pay the tuition--not the reverse. The schools get the money. The schools don't pay the students to be there to learn.

Which gets us wondering again. Why should law firms pay new grads--even top students from fine schools--if they are often years away from being productive, and the law schools, for all their promise, potential and cache, are doing about 10% of the lawyer-creating job?

In many instances, the new grad is the only real beneficiary in the law firm-employee relationship. Turnover everywhere is relatively high. Many firms get zilch--and start over again. The current situation is bad for clients because it compromises value--and it cannot be good for students who think they are equipped to add value when they are not even close.

We suspect that legal education in recent years appears to have done many students a disservice by making them think that law school--by its very nature of being focused on teaching you "to think" like a lawyer--could ever give students more than 10% of what they need to be full-gauged lawyers and problem solvers.

Law done right is a hands-on profession and takes everything you have, and organizational and managerial skills the schools cannot teach or be expected to teach.

"Thinking like a lawyer" does not inform your every synapse, breath, and moment.

Moreover, lawyering is not necessarily a "PC", gentle or even genteel culture. Are the schools telling them it is?

To be fair, the substance of the work at a client-focused law firm doing higher-end problem-solving (in deals, courts, international work, etc.) may be very cerebral and challenging. A feast of exhilarating ideas and causes. Lucky people leading a Life of the Mind.

But the actual tone of the same place is more like Rahm Emanuel or John Wayne commanding brainstorming, fully-engaged troops. It will be less like Mr. Rogers or Alan Alda whispering kind and nurturing things to the latest crop of Teletubbies. Big Bird and Care Bears in the trenches is not an image most of us wish to project to clients. (If we ever do that, please get a big net, okay? )

Bosses at law firms may be Coif, former Law Review editors, and writers of famous Matthew Bender tomes. But they are still bosses who "want stuff". They do not understand (or even like) younger people who can't get it for them. Many law firms are dominated by type-A problem solvers with strong personalities who live to get things done. Let's hope that never changes. It's good for the customers.

You may ask: has the "recession" or downturn in the global economy helped? Has it made students and graduates more likely to stick it out, and compensate for things they may not have gained from their legal educations? Are students and new grads "stepping up" to train themselves?

Answer: No. We, at least, are not seeing it. Nothing has changed.

And finally there's the question: Is it really necessary for law students to be in classroom settings for three years?

At a minimum, we wish that law schools could convey a few truths, and what might be called "old verities", to part-time clerks, summer clerks and grads:

1. Even for the most brilliant, motivated, resourceful and ambitious people, law practice is time-intensive and very hard--especially in the beginning.

2. Graduating from law school with top grades and willing to give practice the old Siwash try is only the beginning of your travail. Again, practicing law is hard. Even harder to learn how. And hard to maintain as years roll by at a comfortable and honorable level of quality. You don't get to say this much: "Sorry, Jack, but I'm on my break."

3. Real-life client problems pose extraordinary ambiguity and complexity (you can't "Google" the answers; you may fret over some projects and have to stay late; at first, it may interfere with your relationships and your "real life").

4. Maybe you'll find that private practice is not for you. It's not about the lawyers, courtliness, lawyer-centric cults of "professionalism", bar associations, wearing cool suits, prestige, money or being in a special club. If you stay in it for all that stuff, even if you make big bucks, you will regret it. No, you will hate it.

5. Clients. Talented people with JDs are legion. It's really about those you serve: the gritty details, hardships, and joys of "getting it right" for them.

(Photo: The Situationist)

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(from a Dec. 21, 2009 JDH post)

Posted by JD Hull at April 14, 2010 11:59 PM

Comments

I love this post. But if we're going to be thoughtful and fair about this, we have to communicate the important real-life components of success to prospective attorneys BEFORE they undertake the debt burden of law school. It's a non-dischargeable bait-and-switch arrangement unless the profession tells young people what it really means to be a lawyer.

I advise 22 year olds at an elite liberal arts college, as they try to figure out whether to go to law school and how much debt to take on to get a law degree. They have almost no access to lawyers telling them about the daily work of the profession. They are inundated by glossy brochures from expensive law schools talking about justice and deep intellectual debates, and by nervous parents who want their kids to have a prestigious career.

I'd love to talk about how to change the sophistication of the people entering law school.

Posted by: Scheherazade at April 16, 2010 12:15 PM

Well, thanks--but law schools should not be about memorization or passing bar exams. They should be about building lawyers who are at once Renaissance people and lovers of complexity.

Law professors are 100% right that "learning to think like a lawyer" is the main event. But that is about 10% (tops) of what lawyers do all day. We do need more from schools in building competent people with moxie, verve and "traditional" ambition.

Posted by: Hull at April 18, 2010 01:19 PM

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