Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thinking About Law School Q & A

Alec DeBari, an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina, is working on a project “to find, assess, and attempt to create a resolution to a problem facing the profession [he is] most interested in pursing in the future.”  Alec is interested in the legal profession and is seriously considering applying to law school.  He defined a problem facing the legal profession as, “the lack of training and preparation in the form of mentorships and meaningful employment students receive while in law school.”

Alec contacted me because he came across multiple articles from the State Bar of Wisconsin regarding a committee that I was a member of called the Committee on the Challenges Facing New Lawyers (the “Committee”), which he believed to be working on similar issues.  He wanted to interview me for his project and he did a nice job of puffing me up and making me feel important.  I am not important.  I am just a young lawyer interested in young lawyer issues, and I was given the privilege of serving on this Committee.  But, since my partners always jokingly accuse me of blowing smoke, I really do appreciate Alec’s approach to getting me on board.  He’ll do well in whatever profession he chooses.

Alec prepared and emailed me six questions. I thought this might make an interesting blog post, so I got his permission to blog about our Q and A.  Additionally and coincidentally, I was recently interviewed by an undergrad student at Northern Michigan University for one of his classes because he too is interested in law school.  So, maybe this will be useful or entertaining for others:

His first question: “In your experience, what exactly have been the shortcomings of the graduate students, as a whole, who are entering the field with a lack of experience?”

My response:  Before I answer this question it is important to note that these answers are my own off-the-cuff thoughts and I am not speaking on behalf of the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Committee, or anyone else.  If you need an official response, I am sure I would not be the person the Wisconsin Bar or the Committee would choose for that purpose.  They know better. 

I disagree with the premise of your question.  Young lawyers are not supposed to be prepared to practice law on their own immediately after taking the bar.  Yes, that is what the license gives them the power to do.  However, they are constrained by ethical rules to only take on matters they are competent to handle.  Practicing law is, like many things, something that you learn by doing.  Young lawyers need supervision, mentorship, a network of support, and a job. 

No matter how much they try, law schools will never make practice ready lawyers.  I am almost ten years out of school, and I am still thankful to have colleagues to bounce ideas off of, and I don’t think that will ever change.  Many sole-practitioners will tell you it is very important to build relationships with other lawyers to do that same thing if you don’t have partners.  When I was a kid my mother was a legal secretary and she often told me, “The lawyers I have worked with all say that they did not learn how to be a lawyer in school.”  That was true then and it’s still true today.

There has always been a debate about whether the focus of law school should be theory or practice.  In my opinion, law school is and should be about learning the theories behind the law.  You’ll learn how to practice when you are a lawyer.  I remember my favorite professor in law school saying something to the effect of, “I don’t care about what the law is, let’s talk about what it should be.”  Absolutely. 

The reason there is such a strong focus on practice readiness now is that young lawyers are struggling to find work.  There are simply too many lawyers.  Some young lawyers are opting to hang their own shingle because they cannot find a job.  Doing that is extremely difficult, so the complaint becomes, “I am supposed to be prepared to do this on my own.  That’s what law school was supposed to do for me.”  I disagree with that notion.

More to your question, one shortcoming that I see the most often in young lawyers (myself included) is a lack of common sense.  I often say to people, “law school does a good job of beating the common sense out of you, and it takes a while to get it back.”  In law school you are trained to spot issues and then analyze each one.  Identifying and analyzing every issue is rarely, if ever, the best practice.  Time is money, and you want to use your time, and your clients’ money, wisely.  Making a list of shortcomings would be hard because, hopefully, most young lawyers are getting better in virtually every area as time goes on.   

His second question: “Have you personally seen any examples of students who recently graduated law school that have not been able to fulfill their duties due to lack of training?”

My response:  Every young lawyer makes mistakes, and that’s okay.  It’s part of the learning process.

His third question: “What do you believe to be the long-term effects of the under prepared graduating students both on the individual student and the legal community as a whole?”

My response:  As I said, I disagree with the problem you have identified.  I see the problem as too many lawyers.  An over supply of lawyers means expected earnings go down.  This means paying off law school loans takes longer, much longer.  Lawyers struggling financially creates numerous problems such as the obvious ones – suicide, depression, alcoholism, delaying significant life decisions such as marriage, kids, buying a house, etc., etc.  However, an over supply of lawyers also creates less obvious problems.  For example, problems with the manner in which cases are handled.  There is an old joke, “One lawyer in town can make a nice living.  Two lawyers in town can make a fortune.”  The lawyer’s ability to make work can create problems for society.  For more on that point, see my post Kill Half the Lawyers.

His fourth question: “Do you believe the issue of lack of experience in the form of mentorship and work experience can be solved and if so how?”

My response:  I do believe the over supply of lawyers problem will be lessened over time. See, for example, TaxProf Blog, 80 Law Schools Are at Risk of Closure, Mostly in California, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  If young inquisitive students, like you, do more research on the legal profession before going to law school, they might decide not to go.  Those going might make better decisions while in law school, like taking on less debt or being hyper-focused on grades, which are extremely important in your early career search.   

His fifth question: “How exactly is the Committee on the Challenges Facing New Lawyers dealing with this issue?”

My response:  I sent you the Committee’s Report, and that is the only official statement by the Committee.  However, in my personal opinion, the Committee did not deal with the problem you have identified.  You imply the problem is that too many young lawyers are unprepared.  The problem is not that too many young lawyers are unprepared.  The problem is that too many young lawyers are unemployed.  As I see it, the work the Committee did was aimed at creating new opportunities for young lawyers to get some of the benefits they would have traditionally received through employers (law firms).  That’s an oversimplification but I want to emphasize that I do not see the actual challenges facing new lawyers to be from their own deficiencies (other than their decision to go to law school).  I see it as a product of the over saturated legal market they have entered.

His sixth question: “If you had one word of advice for students considering Law School and the legal profession as a whole what would it be?”

My response:  Law is a great profession.  Don’t do it for the money.  Be extremely careful with how much student debt you take on.  Your grades in law school are more important than they should be, so put down the beer, pipe, what have you, and do your absolute best.

That’s My Argument.

© November 2014 Brandon J. Evans