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“Worthless” Law School Graduates?

In a world neutered by political correctness, it’s refreshing when someone has the stones to be painfully honest. Simon Cowell has become a multi-millionaire by doing just that. He’s also doing a service to wannabe professional singers by finally telling them the truth: singing is not your thing and you should pursue other efforts to make a living.

Recently, during the Future of Education Conference in New York City (sponsored by Harvard Law School and NYU Law School), a corporate general counsel took the same tack and sent shock waves through the legal education community. According to the legal blog Above the Law, United Technologies general counsel Chester Paul Beach addressed about 75 law school deans/legal educators and promptly told them that graduating 3Ls and first and second year associates are “worthless. It’s awful, it’s really really awful.”

The essence of Beach’s complaint was that corporations that hire law firms should not have to pay for young attorneys’ on-the-job training and that the current big firm business model and billable hours structure is unsustainable. The diatribe was also a direct shot at law schools for not teaching students practical, transferable skills.

Before I go any further, let me say that, for the most part, I had a positive law school experience. Most of my professors were caring, intelligent individuals. Some were even nationally recognized in their fields and are worth every penny the school pays them. Most of my classmates were also caring, intelligent people, some of whom remain close friends.

That said, I’m not sure I learned a tremendous amount of practical, transferable skills, aside from the work done in clinic. In fact, a common refrain during the bar exam prep class was, “Why are we just learning this stuff now?”

I also had a bad experience with visiting professors. My civil procedure prof was a bitter ex-big law firm attorney whose disdain for the profession was palpable and occasionally vocalized. She even let a 21-year-old 1L teach the class on collateral estoppel, then got angry when students questioned whether that’s what their tuition money was paying for.

My visiting evidence professor was a nice enough guy, but his credibility became suspect when he essentially admitted he had never actually tried a case. Upon that admission, half the class laughed out loud in exasperation and some headed for the door.

Simply put, there’s a declining “value proposition” in going to law school. Too many students get saddled with debt they can’t repay because there are not enough high paying jobs to go around – and it’s non-dischargeable debt at that. What’s worse, there’s a growing concern that law schools aren’t preparing their students well enough for real-world employment. That’s a double whammy to wide-eyed law school applicants who have bought into the myth that becoming a lawyer leads one to automatic wealth, prosperity and happiness.

Law schools, however, don’t have an interest in decreasing enrollment because that tuition is needed to help pay for things like new facilities and professors’ and administrators’ salaries. Who cares if most graduates fall into the law school debt trap? We make six figures, get summers off, and don’t have to respond to written discovery! Yippee!

At a minimum, Mr. Beach’s blunt appraisal should be viewed as a Simon Cowell-type assessment of the current state of legal education. Are there exceptions? Of course.  But, generally speaking, law schools should require significant clinic credits to graduate and use adjunct professors with practical, up to date knowledge to teach some courses. Law schools should also begin a dialogue with corporations, in-house counsel and managing partners to determine common weaknesses of young associates, then supplement the curriculum to address those concerns.

If these changes are made, everybody wins. Law schools provide better value to the students, students obtain practical/transferable skills and companies save time and money by not having to train young associates to do tasks they should already know how to do.

The second part of the equation may be more difficult – destroying the myth that a J.D. equals automatic wealth, prosperity, and happiness. Maybe we can start by telling prospective law school students they’re really good singers.

12 comments

  1. I agree that there are better models for law schools–aside from learning how to research, it doesn’t prepare students for the bar exam or for real world practice. And the bar exam doesn’t prepare students for real world practice. When I got out of law school and into my first legal job, I told my boss that I wanted to draft a complaint. I’d never seen one, but was convinced that all lawyers should know how to do it. But, the list could go on forever–motions practice, written discovery and other fundamentals of every day law practice were foreign to my graduating class.

  2. This is a silly piece, another example of generalizing from personal experience to the world at large, although one wonders if you truly understood your law school experience given the level of analysis in the story generally. There are too many particular errors to cover completely so I will mention only a few. The conference you referred to was co-sponsored by New York Law School (not New York University Law School); big law firms, the major employers of law graduates, do not want more clinical instruction, they prefer to do their own training (which is much better); law schools don’t need more adjuncts, adjuncts regularly come to class unprepared and late, they cancel or reschedule class frequently because of work obligations, and they tend to know about only very narrow topics they’ve worked on; Chester Beach’s indictment of law schools was thoroughly shredded in the comments to the ATL story about his speech and anyone who wants to know what’s wrong with what he said can read those comments (interesting that you don’t provide a link); most of the other speakers at the Conference did not agree with Beach (interesting that you don’t mention that); clinical courses are more of an emotional outlet for students than genuine education – sort of like student government for middle school students, something to make them feel older – invariably the courses are the intellectually least sophisticated part of any law school curriculum and usually are taken for their GPA inflating quality rather than their educational content (you’d know that if you were “up to date” on what’s going on in law school); and law schools should not design the curriculum based on suggestions from corporate clients, that will produce only a list of mundane motor skill tasks which could be taught to any monkey by rote drill in a week – law tried that system of education in the nineteenth century and moved beyond it. There is a lot more that could be said but probably no point in saying it.

    I am willing to believe what you say about your own legal education, that it was pretty bad, but it is hard to tell from your discussion whether you or the law school was responsible for that. Even good education is lost on lots of people, many of those people go to law school, and the ones who don’t do well tend to whine about it afterwards. That may be all that’s going on here. I should add, the law student debt problem is serious and worthy of extended discussion, and there is a lot of that discussion going on (again, something you seem not to be up to date on), but it’s interesting that you don’t emphasize that topic. Perhaps this is because it is no longer a personal experience for you.

  3. Excellent article. Well written and right on the money (or, uh, right on tune)!!

  4. Of course graduating 3L’s are worthless. Just like most jobs, the new guy doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

  5. The comments are accurate, if worded in an unnecessarily mean-spirited — but attention-getting — way.

    But this commentators intro is absurd. None of this has anything to do with political correctness. And opening with a salute to Simon Cowell is preposterous. The man is a fake, a sock puppet, who knows nothing about music or entertainment, and only gullible dummies think otherwise.

  6. Sad but true. nice piece. reminds of the wesbite bitterlawyer.com and their web series “Living the Dream.”

  7. The problem with Beach’s comments and Jason Beaulieu’s gloss on them is that they tend to confuse two or three different purported problems. One is oversupply; one is the questionable utility of legal education as preparation for client service; and one is the reluctance of corporate clients to pay for training. Though the problems interlock to some degree, they are separate.
    Without a doubt, we are turning out too many lawyers. That is a genuine problem.
    It is much more debatable whether law school is really such a bad training for law practice; I can see the arguments both ways on that.
    The third issue relates to the orientation of the academy to the marketplace; it is a remarkably self-centered vision on the part of a corporate consumer of legal skills to think that the proper function of law schools revolves solely around creating lawyers with the skill sets necessary to serve corporate masters — uh, clients. Lawyers serve a wide variety of clients. And they do a lot of other things as well, including providing through things like law reviews, legislative testimony, and a myriad of other professional enterprises, a principled and abstract analysis of some of the most important problems we as a society face.
    That may sound awfully pointy-headed and impractical to the likes of Mr. Beach, but that’s because he has never had to live in a society unshaped by lawyers with names like Madison and Marshall (John and Thurgood both) and Lincoln. Whether corporations should have to pay (through rates that subsidize their post-graduate legal skill training) part of the freight for society’s choice to train legal generalists who have been imparted the rudiments of higher legal thinking as well as rudimentary transactional and litigation skills is a philosophical question. My view is that they should, but I can see both sides of that one. But let’s keep the issues separate in our minds.

  8. UMDF, if I were a betting man, I’d say you’re someone who enjoys tenure and summers off. Thanks for reading though. Have a great weekend.

  9. Once upon a time law schools prepared their students to be thinking people who, unleased on the general population, could provide reasonably good counsel. Those days, of course, are gone, but I wonder whether the problem lies with the schools for not keeping up with the times or with the times for becoming brutal. Plenty has been said about whether law schools, having become university profit centers, contributed to overlawyering, but it seems to me that the problem goes back further than the nineties, when IP and M&A created the demand for lawyers that simultaneously drove salaries into the stratosphere for a lucky few and hoodwinked the rest who paid out big tuition money and didn’t get the big payoff. For me the issue remains with the billable hour and with the leveraging of BigLaw. I had hoped to see some changes made as a result of the recession, but so far all that’s happened is that hapless associates get let go and salaries get cut. Unprofitable partners are quietly (or sometimes not quietly) escorted from the premises. PPP remains pretty much the same. I am more and more convinced that law is a basically Gatsby-an enterprise. You either come from the right people, or you don’t, and if you don’t, you are better off seeking work elsewhere. How sad I feel, typing that.

  10. I agree with the comments about over-generalizing experiences in law schools. Clearly some law schools are of better caliber than others, and some law schools offer practical learning in addition to theory, research and rules of law. Everyone needs to do their research long and hard before they decide to take the law school plunge. And for those that do so thinking they’re going to graduate making boat-loads of money, they are in for a very rude awakening–especially in this recent job market.

    All that being said, ANY entry level worker–whether a professional or otherwise–is green. You can have nothing but a high school degree, apply for a secretary position and spend the first year learning the ropes. You can graduate form Medical school and spend your first year as an intern killing all your patients. There’s always a learning curve in any industry. Even people who go into 2nd or 3rd careers will have a learning curve in their new job. So although I agree all law school should implement practical aspects to their curriculum, faulting law schools for not preparing you for every possible thing you may encounter is not the answer.

    As for studying for the bar exam,the only thing that should have been new on the bar exam was topics that you never took in law school. I, for one, never took Corporations in law school, even though it was offered. Therefore, I had to make do with the crash course during bar review. But its not like the bar review/bar exam asked you to produce documents that you never had to do before. If your law school didn’t teach you how to write a memo, brief, letter to a client, or what interrogatories were–I suggest you get you money back.

    As for clinics, I think they’re a great way to see some of the things you’ve learned in action. But I don’t think requiring more clinics will solve anything. I had a clinic at a DA office, but when compared to another friend’s DA office, you’d be surprised at the differences. What I learned in one DA office was not completely transferable in another because the other one did things differently. And that experience is much different than working in a firm, non-profit, government or other office.

  11. I graduated from law school 3 years ago and I have still not found a job in the legal industry. Only low wage service industry work that does not even require a high school diploma. Now I have forgotten everything I learned in law school. Not that it would matter.