Overcoming Law School's Defects




What is the Best Law School?

Can you imagine investing over $150,000 - one hundred and fifty thousand dollars - and devoting three years of your life on a legal education without finding out which law school offers the most value for the money? That is exactly what thousands of college graduates do every year.

The MacCrate Report, officially "Legal Education and Professional Development - An Educational Continuum - Report of the Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap, The American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, 1992", (MacCrate) is a "must read" if you are in or considering law school.

The report warns the potential applicant: "Prospective law students generally are not knowledgeable about the profession: what certain jobs entail; what different paths for entry into the profession may be; how students should prepare for their careers; and how law schools may differ in the preparation they offer. Law students tend to be passive consumers of legal education: they simply assume that the law school experience adequately prepares them for practice." MacCrate p. 228.

The report also emphasizes that: "The decision to pursue a career in the law should be a considered choice reached with a full awareness of its implications .....There are three critical stages of decision-making en route to becoming a lawyer: 1) Perhaps the most significant, whether to enter the legal profession at all: 2) which law school to choose; and 3) what career path to enter after law school. Each occasion should be a time for careful reflection and self-assessment based upon sufficient information to make an informed choice ..... Timely and accurate information about the legal profession and the function of law schools as the gateway to the profession helps prepare prospective applicants for a future in law and may help prevent some from becoming locked into a career from which they draw no real satisfaction, for which they are poorly suited and in which they perform marginally. Such individuals need access to comprehensive and objective information." MacCrate p. 225- 227

Why is it so difficult to find the right law school? Don't we all know which are the best schools? That depends on how you define "best". For over one hundred years law schools have seen their mission as teaching law students how to think like a lawyer - what might be referred to as a Graduate School Model. Law schools have always rejected the medical school approach which prepares students to practice their profession - the Professional School Model. The legal profession has for many years decried and criticized law schools for the woeful lack of competence of those graduating and entering the legal profession.

The heart of the MacCrate Report, undertaken to correct the situation, is its comprehensive listing of the four "Fundamental Values of the Profession" (Provision of Competent Representation; Striving to Promote Justice, Fairness, and Morality; Striving to Improve the Profession and Professional Self-Development) and the ten "Fundamental Lawyering Skills" needed to competently represent a client (Problem Solving; Legal Analysis and Reasoning; Legal Research; Factual Investigation; Communication; Counseling; Negotiation; Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution Procedures; Organization and Management of Legal Work; and Recognizing and Resolving Ethical Dilemmas). The report provides ample evidence that most law schools provide limited instruction about the four values and teach primarily only two of the ten skills.

"If professional competence is the goal, the fact is troubling that so many young lawyers are seen as lacking the required skills and values at the time the lawyer assumes full responsibility for handling a clients legal affairs. Much remains to be done to improve the preparation of new lawyers for practice." MacCrate p.266

"(R)elatively few law students have exposure to the full range of professional skills offerings. The Task force found that the majority of graduating law students had four or fewer skills 'experiences' (simulated skills, clinics, externships or others) while in law school. When classes of first year "Introduction to Lawyering .... legal writing and research...trial advocacy... and moot court were removed from the list, the majority of graduating students had only one.. or no... additional exposures to professions skills instruction ...professional skills training occupies only nine (9%) percent of the total instructional time available to law schools." MacCrate p. 240

Are you in law school or interested in going to law school so you can eventually represent individual women, men and/or children in areas of employment, education, housing, health, discrimination, family and environmental injury? If your vision is to use your legal education to help those traditionally unrepresented by the legal profession or to promote social and economic justice, yours is a monumental task. As many as 40% of those entering many highly selective law schools share your vision while less than 5% reached it at graduation.

Based on my 48 years in the legal profession, including 25 years of career planning during which time I have spoken to over 5000 law students and lawyers, I can strongly warn you that if you follow the path taken by college graduates over the last fifteen years and naively choose a law school without employing an analysis similar to that outlined in this article or passively do nothing and rely on the law school to support your efforts to graduate and find work in that area, it is extremely unlikely that you will reach your goal.

"(T)he Statement of Skills and Values identifies, as a fundamental professional value, the need to 'promote justice, fairness and morality'. Law school deans, professors, administrators and staff must not only promote these values by words, but must so conduct themselves as to convey to students that these values are essential ingredients of our profession. Too often, the Socratic method of teaching emphasizes qualities that have little to do with justice, fairness and morality in daily practice. Students too easily gain the impression that wit ... and dazzling performance are more important that the personal moral values that lawyers must possess and that the profession must espouse. The promotion of these values requires no resources and no institutional changes. It does require commitment". MacCrate p. 236

The underlying assumption which allows most law schools to rationalize their failure to prepare law students for the practice of law is the belief that the training and mentoring will be provided by the law firm employer after graduation. While that may still be happening at some large law firms, individual representation is practiced primarily in small firms, in both the public and the private sectors where immediate responsibility is the rule, not close training and supervision. You will be seriously disadvantaged if you do not have the basic values and skills of a lawyer.

"One frequently heard plaint is that law schools in preparing students for practice give greater attention to the needs of those lawyers entering practices in which they will serve the business community than to the needs of those entering practices in which they will provide legal services to individual clients. The transition from law school into individual practice or relatively unsupervised positions in small offices, both public and private, presents special problems which the law schools and the organized bar must address." MacCrate p. 47

What can you do to avoid the career dissatisfaction that NEARLY 70% of all practicing lawyers widely acknowledged in recent surveys? Learn how to practice law. Learn 1) the fundamental values of the legal profession, 2) the fundamental skills 3) the wide range of options and settings in which lawyers practice,4) how to keep debt from dictating your career choice and 5) how to plan your career and search for a satisfying position. The failure to learn one or more of these lessons has caused thousands of law students to be diverted form their hopes and dreams. Many intensely dislike the workplace they find themselves in but believe they are trapped and have no options. "Looking for law in all the wrong places" inevitably leads lawyers to evince the most common characteristics recognize in clients every day - lack of self-respect, low self-esteem and a reduced sense of self-worth.

Why not simply refer to the US News and World Reports Annual Ranking? The most current issue (2008) contained NO criterion evaluating law schools on how well they teach the skills, values and options of the profession. Worst of all for you, the category entitled "placement success" rewarded law schools that funnel the most students the quickest at the highest salaries to large law firms that represent major Fortune 500 corporations. If you want to learn how to practice law and be trained to be a professional, do not rely on rankings whose underlying assumptions are the criteria of the Graduate School Model.

"Law school administrators know the strengths and weakness of their own institutions and should be candid in discussing them with applicants. Catalogues and application materials should provide the kinds of information that will enable candidates to make informed decisions. Unfortunately this is not always the case. It has become routine, for example to talk about skills training and clinical opportunities, but there may be no mention of enrollment restrictions not the chances of being accepted into these courses. ...A review of catalogues and entries in the Official Guide to U.S. Law schools .... provides evidence that schools are not doing a good job distinguishing themselves from one another. Many appear to be all things to all people. This is unfortunate because it prevents law school applicants from making intelligent and informed choices as to which law schools would be good matches for them. ... The perceived lack of adequate information coming from law schools themselves has resulted in a plethora of materials purporting to fill the vacuum. These include articles, books, and a variety of law school ratings which have attracted considerable attention. Many legal educators have commented on the defects in these materials, especially the ratings, but little has been done to address the underlying problem. It is now time to do so." MacCrate p. 228-229.

One clothing store’s motto is "be an educated consumer". If you want to use your legal training to help people or, as some clients express it, "to do something meaningful" find out what you need to learn in law school to be prepared to use your legal degree in the way you want to use it and either go to a law school that provides the best education or, if you are already in school, ask that your law school provide what you need.

The Request for Information directed to law school deans below can help you obtain material useful in evaluating, comparing and differentiating between law schools. Use it as a starting point to accumulate information about the extent to which a law school (yours, if you are presently in law school) is preparing its students to practice law.

Request For Information

Kindly forward the following material:

Written material describing how the school teaches the importance of ATTAINING A LEVEL OF COMPETENCE and preparing students to competently represent individuals at the time they graduate.

Written material describing how the school teaches the PROMOTING of JUSTICE and how to insure that "every person in our society should have ready access to the independent professional services of a lawyer of integrity and competence"

Written material on IMPROVING THE PROFESSION and the involvement of the law school in training and teaching not only students but practicing lawyers

Written material describing how faculty teaches the importance of SELF-DEVELOPMENT and the obligation of law students to take positions only if they are consistent with the students' personal values and professional goals

The list of fundamental skills the school teaches and a course catalogue clearly indexing courses by the skills taught

Description of a full-time office staffed by faculty where students can receive advice about which courses to take to be prepared for particular forms of practice

The description of the courses which teach the fundamental skills of problem solving, factual investigation, communication, counseling, and how to litigate?

The description of all the experiential courses offered (such as clinics and simulated teaching where one has the opportunity to "perform" and be evaluated) along with the total available slots for second year students listed as a number and as the percentage of that class.

The number of those in your Class of 2011 who plan to open their own office on graduation and a description of courses on how to start and manage a law office

The description of courses taught by faculty which teach the legal needs of the public and the demographics of the legal profession (the various forms of legal practice).

The percent of students in the Class of 2011 who want to work for large law firms doing commercial work and the percent who want to work in small firms or public interest representing individuals and consumers.

The years of experience of all tenured faculty members representing individuals in personal, consumer or "personal plight issues" (divorce, plaintiff tort, criminal defense) stated as a number and as an average for all tenured faculty.

Written material from your law school expressing concern about the effect of high debt load on career choice (especially on those interested in public service).

Written material describing all the specific actions the school is taking to reduce the effect of high debt (such as an loan forgiveness programs, decreasing law school tuition, encouraging and supporting part-time, term-time work by students to increase their income)

Written material advising law school faculty and staff about the inappropriateness of suggesting to students to take jobs in large law firms they do not want simply to pay off their debts.

The name of the person whose full time duty is the advising of students on budgeting and financial planning (not a student loan office staff person)

The distribution of your Class of 2007 by job: large law firms - corporate; small firms - corporate; small firms - individual (less than 5 lawyers); government; public interest law firms; non-profit organizations; for profit corporations? Is this distribution consistent with the forms of practice your school encourages and prepares students for? If not, what steps are your school taking to change this distribution?

The percentage of the career services budget that is devoted to on-campus interviewing and the percentage to career counseling?

Written policies covering a) the percentage of faculty work week devoted to classes, preparing for classes and advising students v. the percentage devoted to research and writing b)the responsibility of faculty for mentoring and guiding students into law practices by suggesting courses, and making referrals for summer and permanent positions and c)the weight which teaching and advising students is given in tenure decisions.

Written responses to any surveys you have taken on job satisfaction of the members of any class beginning with the Class of 2000. The changes the law school has instituted to improve the level of satisfaction of its graduates?

Do not be surprised if you are unable to obtain much of the material requested since many law schools have not gathered such information or may have provided some only confidentially to the American Bar Association.

"It is important that undergraduates know that selection of a law school can significantly impact one's career options. For example, attendance at a "national" school may enhance one's chances of entering large firm practice but may discourage entering practice in other settings." MacCrate p. 231

Armed with some information and an awareness of what else you need to learn, you will have begun to take control over your legal education. If you are in law school, you will be enabled to increase the likelihood of finding satisfaction in the legal profession. For those considering law school, you will not only be able to make an informed decision about which law school to attend but also discover what you need to learn during your law school years.

Lawyer Satisfaction Blog - On-Campus Interviewing