Nov 25, 2012

Law Schools' Lost Generation

University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School

Update III: This on background, but several attorneys—contacted after this piece was published—are cautioning that legal services will remain a vital contribution for the additional reason that the GOP is increasing enactment of state laws attacking attorneys who protect people from corporations. Such laws are an attack on the rule of law. As for law schools, Lawrence E. Mitchell's piece in the NYT is gaining increasing currency among jurists.

Update II: 'Massive layoffs’ predicted in law schools nationally due to big drop in applicants (Debra Cassens Weiss, Jan. 31, 2013)

Update: NYT - Law School Is Worth the Money (Mitchell). A "one-sided analysis is inflicting significant damage, not only on law schools but also on a society that may well soon find itself bereft of its best and brightest lawyers."

Students Face Uncertain Job Market, Massive Debt;
Wisconsin Law Schools Positioned to Fight National Trend

Nathan Littrell appears a prize catch for prospective employers.

Graduating in May 2012 with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school, Nathan is a family man, has corporate real-world experience, completed a clerkship with the U.S. Attorney's Office, and has extensive experience with the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ).

Littrell is young, ambitious, and has a great sense of humor.

But Littrell, a Madison resident, volunteers with the Wisconsin DOJ, and drives a cab at night.

You can be anything, my daughter—a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, anything—many a hopeful parent has said to her child.

Forget about it. Littrell cannot find a paid, legal job now. And he is not alone.

Littrell and his family starred in a humorous video posted on YouTube this year (produced by Stuart's Law Revue), quickly drawing over 12,000 hits. The video portrays Littrell’s experiences of obtaining a law degree and not being able to find paid legal work.

Now, a number of parents and jurists are advising undergraduate students explicitly to scratch a law degree off the list of higher education leading to promising careers and in many cases—fulfillment of dreams.

The field of law no longer appears to be a safe haven for young, brilliant students seeking professional employment.

At Wisconsin’s two law schools, faculty, staff, and students are well aware of the state of the profession of law.

As a graduate school at the second largest public research university in the United States, the UW-Madison Law School is innovative and aggressive in its professional training through the law school's “law-in-action” approach to professional training.

“We recognize that this is a tough time to enter the field of law. We are constantly adapting and exploring new ways to give our students experiences, skills and opportunities that will help launch their careers. This is not new at the University of Wisconsin, where we have a long history of graduating practice-ready lawyers,” said Dean Margaret Raymond in a statement for this piece. “Students get real-world experience in our clinical and experiential learning programs, which are among the best in the country, both in terms of the breadth of opportunity they offer and in the number of students who take advantage of them. Over 80 percent of our students participate in a clinical or externship opportunity in their time here. UW Law students add these rich experiences to a foundation of academic rigor. They graduate well prepared for twenty-first century practice.”

Raymond was named Dean of the Law School in July 2011.

The economic crisis and the downturn in legal jobs are generally regarded as being casually linked.

Reads the Employment Data webpage on the UW-Law School site:
In 2009, in response to the financial crisis and resulting downturn in the legal employment market, the Law School implemented its STEP program (Students Transitioning to Employment Program), under which the Law School provides modest stipends to graduates who have not secured permanent employment at graduation but who do legal work for at least two months after graduation on a volunteer basis at a public interest organization or government agency.
Data maintained at the UW Office of Career Services (OCS), (self-reported by UW-Law grads) on the number of graduates from the class of 2010 shows 239 employed grads of 257 grads from 2010 (92 percent employed). In 2011, 226 out of 254 grads are employed (88 percent employed).

Data on percent employed over the last 10 years similarly show employment in the mid-90 percent range.

These data points on the website are not all revealing to the situation law students face today, however, as the data do not indicate the underemployment in the salaries of attorneys beginning at minimum wage or working for free, the temporary legal jobs, the tenuous nature of offered positions, and of course the problem of paying off six-figure student loans.

The annual costs of attendance at UW-Madison law today is $40,157. Law school tuition and fees for Wisconsin residents is $21,347.

UW-Madison is generally regarded as in the top 15 percent of law schools nationally.

The UW is candid about this data on its employment data webpage, breaking the employment down into subsets of differing types of employment.

“Employment statistics reflect part-time, full-time, contract, temporary, and permanent positions,” reads the UW-Law Employment Data webpage.

Looked at from a macroeconomic perspective, too many law student graduates compete for too few law positions.

As Professor William Henderson of the University of Indiana-Maurer School of Law writes on his blog on the risks and idiosyncratic nature of the study and practice of law:

In ordinary industry, capacity just goes away in response to declines in demand. But [law] we are not an ordinary business. … (And) (a)lthough entry level salaries are going down, tuition is likely to go up or sideways at best.
“The quality of candidates for open position is extraordinary. The number of law school graduates who either don’t have jobs or who are willing to work for embarrassingly low salaries is just amazing,” said Michael Bauer, partner in the Madison-based Bauer and Bach, LLC.

Bauer previously worked as the administrator of the Legal Services Division at the Wisconsin Department of Justice from 2003-2007.

“It was the same at the DOJ, the people we had applying for jobs were so highly qualified, you cannot help be surprised they were looking for work,” said Bauer.

The Bubble May Burst

A widely read January 2012 American Bar Association (ABA) Journal piece by Henderson and Rachel M. Zahorsky characterizes the number of law students nationally as a "bubble" in danger of bursting under the weight of the volume of students, massive debt incurred (since student loan policies were changed under the Ronald Reagan administration), the saturated jobs market facing new attorneys, and new technologies.

Outsourcing and offshoring are not limited to muscle labor, phone banks, and information technology shops. Large firms involved in big legal cases increasingly offshore some basic legal work to India and other developing countries, a trend that began some 20 years ago.

Marquette University Law School
Said Ed Fallone, Associate Professor at Marquette University Law School in an e-mail:

"It is possible that new technology has opened up certain basic legal tasks to outsourcing abroad, and that the demand for new lawyers is undergoing a fundamental change. It is also possible that the current hiring situation is simply a temporary reflection of a historically severe recession. I don’t think that we can be certain of anything, other than the fact that recent law school graduates have faced a very difficult job market over the last few years."

"Is law school still worth the investment, and the debt that is typically incurred in order to obtain a law school degree? I believe that law school is still a good value for many graduates, but the reality is that a law school diploma doesn’t guarantee future employment. People applying to law school need to look carefully at the potential cost of a legal education, but in addition, law schools themselves need to explore options—like a two-year degree—that might reduce the cost of tuition."

The days of graduating from law school, hanging a shingle on an office and beginning a new practice, appear nearly gone. Getting an attorney’s job is often cause for relief as well as celebration.

“I receive a lot of legal periodicals and they are chock-full of stories of large firms cutting back and large firms trying to hire students for next-to-nothing, and in some cases actually nothing,” said Madison attorney, Jeff Scott Olson. “My long-time paralegal, Theresa Lenz, just graduated from Marquette in May, and she and I were just overjoyed when she got a job as a field attorney with the National Labor Relations Board in the Baltimore office.”

Wisconsin Law Schools Well-positioned on Jobs Downturn
A black letter law school is a professional training school, emphasizing training, skills, and knowledge of procedures to practice law, and virtually nothing else.

A stripped-down professional training law education, of course, can produce attorneys who are less than the iconic learned counsel who are imbued with a wide array of academic and life knowledge for service in a client-focused practice.

The numbers of law school graduates and new laws schools have ballooned over the past five decades, as noted by J. Gordon Hylton in his July 2012 column in a Marquette University Law School online journal.

Some of the increase is from smaller, black letter law schools whose quality and usefulness to law firms and the public are perceived to vary widely.

The New York University (NYU) School of Law recently announced a "retrofit" of its third-year curriculum in an effort to address the graduates entering the depleted jobs market, as reported by Peter Lattman in the New York Times, which has heavily covered national trends in law and school.

The NYU effort includes an initiative with the objective of implementing a specialization of skills making law grads more attractive to prospective employers.

At the UW law school, some students graduate in 2.5 years, according to a law school assistant Dean, as a costs-savings adaption for law students.

This helps grads deal with depleted jobs market, driving down the salaries recent graduates can make to pay down their student loans.

"All other things being equal, it doesn't make sense for an employer to spend time training a recent graduate if someone with two or three years' experience can be had for the same salary. And in the current market, there are a lot of underemployed 2009 and 2010 graduates champing at the bit for a shot at a decent job,” said recent UW grad, Littrell.

Many jurists speak of their preference not for “black letter” law training emphasizing skills and knowledge of procedures to practice law, but merely more effective professional training.

“One strength of the Marquette curriculum is that we focus on imparting practical lawyering skills and producing graduates who are ready to practice law on day one after graduation. A large number of our graduates start a solo or small firm practice after graduation, and are, in a sense, becoming their own employer,” said Marquette's Prof. Ed Fallone in an e-mail.

Marquette is often said to resemble almost a club—so close are alumni, the law school, and the graduate community. This community comes in handy in the competitive jobs market.

Other types of law schools—policy-oriented and philosophical law schools—are typified by Yale Law School, emphasizing, broadly speaking, philosophical, sociological, historical, and social contract aspects of what law is and how it functions in our society for the people for whose benefit law is implemented to serve.

UW-Law School: A Law-in-Action Approach

From “The Dean’s View”:

The University of Wisconsin approach to legal education has been characterized by what we call ‘law in action.’… Our focus on law in action helps our students think about these issues and learn to be more effective and proactive advocates, counselors and advisers.
The law-in-action approach has a long tradition and Wisconsin has need no of a retrofit.

The UW Law School is immersed in the Wisconsin Idea of serving the greater community of Wisconsin, and the reciprocal benefit of law students effectively serving as second-chair counsel for real people is hailed.

“In your law school experience at the UW, you have the ability to observe federal court, the state Supreme Court, and county courts. And as the center of government (Madison) there are many different opportunities for internships in different agencies so they (law students) get a different look at the law,” said Ismael R. Ozanne, Dane County District Attorney. “As for the [Frank J.] Remington Center (a clinical-professional program), it's truly a hands-on experience. You immerse yourself in the practice of law. The nice thing about the prosecution project and the public defense project, you are actually there getting real world experience that in my judgment truly puts you up ahead up of 90 percent of law schools in the country. The Remington Center is an incredible resource that we may not truly appreciate.”

Ozanne graduated in 1998 from the UW-Law School, and was appointed by Gov. Doyle as District Attorney in 2010. He was elected in November 2012.

Not just DA Ozanne sings the praises of the UW-Madison as law school for its hands-on, clinical-professional programs.

The clinical-professional programs are as much of the law school as the Wisconsin Idea is of the Wisconsin University System.

The UW-Madison Law School's Career Services maintains orientation, recruiting, placement, and job search programs throughout law students' educational training.

UW clinical-professional programs like the Frank J. Remington Center and the Lawyering Skills Program are renowned for providing practical legal training in criminal justice and civil areas of law.

And the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) remains a "nationally recognized clinical legal educational program that investigates and litigates viable claims of innocence on behalf of inmates and seeks to remedy the causes of wrongful conviction."

Other programs, such as the UW-Madison Law School Veterans Law Center also serve the greater community while providing training for the law students.

Dick the Butcher and Lawyers

As the number of lawyer jokes attest, the profession is not necessarily held in the highest regard—that is, until you need a lawyer. Then a well-educated, erudite person who understands the intricacies of the law and can explain them in a concise and meaningful way becomes indispensable.

“The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,” said the Shakespearean character, Dick the Butcher, as he and another discussed imposing a mob-led tyranny upon the populace in a project using uneducated underground political movements glorifying ignorance.

This is a widely misunderstood quote, implying for many that lawyers are the bad guys.

The lawyers are the good guys in Henry VI—learned and ethical—protecting the rule of law, rights and due process in our civil society.

Marquette’s and the UW’s commitment—as part of a liberal arts education—to furthering the study and application of the law in our country remain during this downturn in the legal market.

For many law students, critical study and social commitment will animate their lives as citizens.

Many students of the law are motivated to pursue this course of study so they can affect change in the world and bring about justice for those who do not often have access to it. These students are not motivated by the promises of riches upon graduation.

"I went to law school with the idea of helping people in mind. Whether you are at a public interest practice or a small general practice firm, law is really a career centered on helping the public or clients," said Jenni Dye, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin.  "I graduated in 2008, which was when the market was starting to constrict. I was able to get a job, by looking for jobs at small to mid-sized firms, more insulated from the decline in business and real estate felt by some of the larger firms. The trade off was, of course, salary. With a high amount of debt coming out of law school, paying off debt on a lower salary is an uphill battle. I'm able to pay my bills, but it hurts your ability to spend elsewhere. I don't have a car loan or a mortgage, in large part because I'm paying off student debt."

Right now, law schools teach you 'the law', but often not the practical skills needed to be successful as an attorney. I was fortunate to take the Lawyering Skills course headed by Ralph Cagle and Gretchen Viney at UW Law, and that gave me valuable skills and insight into how to actually put my legal knowledge into practice. UW offers clinical experience, too, but those are not a requirement for graduation. Movement towards more practice-based training would benefit both students and potential employers, as they would not have to invest as much time and energy into providing that practical training on the job."

Dye, Littrell, and Wisconsin's law-in-action approach appear to be good bets in any market.

It may be equally gratifying to our future jurists if making a living practicing as attorneys is a predictable outcome of graduating from law school in a saturated jobs market.

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