A proposal for a new public law school for Massachusetts, one of only 7 states in the country not to have a public law school, has generated an enormous amount of controversy with many saying that there is a need for a school with a reasonable tuition and others saying there is at this time no need for a school that would add more lawyers to an overcrowded field. Prominent among the opponents, shocking as that may not be, are the local law schools. What is shocking is that I find myself agreeing with the stand of the law schools.Over a week ago, I submnitted what follows as a proposed op-ed to the Boston Globe. I welcome your comments.
ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE ON THE PUBLIC LAW SCHOOL PROPOSAL
What’s missing from the discussion about the need for a new public law school for Massachusetts is any consideration of the failure of the existing law schools to serve not only the educational needs of their students but also the legal needs of the public.
In 1980, Lloyd Cutler, Esq. (adviser to Presidents Carter and Clinton) remarked that 95% of lawyers’ time is devoted to the wealthiest 1% of our society, the 25% most disadvantaged get 5% of their time and the remaining nearly 75% cannot afford and get virtually none of their time.”
As Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Adviser from 1984-89, I observed that at least 40% of the students hoped to represent individuals in personal plight matters. That school and other “selective” law schools, however, funneled as many as 95% of their graduates to large law firms by failing to prepare them to work in small law firms and by devoting staff time to the insidious on-campus interviewing placement program.
Little has changed. Diverting students from their career dreams has led to shattered self-confidence and rampant dissatisfaction within the legal profession as well as continued lack of access to the justice system for the public. So while we seem to have too many law schools in this state and this country, recent surveys indicate that only 20% of the legal needs of the 45,000,000 least wealthy in this country are met by the legal system.
The possibility that the new school might contribute to the state coffers is not a plus. The law school industry continues to ignore decades of calls that it provide quality legal education at a reasonable cost. For years, universities have been able to consider their law schools “cash cows”. Law schools increase tuition to outrageous levels far beyond the rate of inflation with many questioning the value of what students (some borrowing up to $200,000 at a time when starting salaries are plummeting) get in return.
Last Friday’s edition of the Harvard Law Record published a copy of an alumnus’ response to a request for a contribution suggesting “.. you might concede that the Law School could ease financial strain on students without reducing the quality of the J.D. degree. One way would be to drop the third year or, or postpone it to mid-career.”
Law professors teach large classes with little opportunity for students to show their understanding of a concept and be evaluated on that performance. Staff is hired to replace faculty who take less of a role in administrative duties such as career planning and devote time to academic research unrelated to effective student education.
During the current economic downturn, with large firm layoffs and job deferrals, one school’s solution is to offer a masters degree, basically a fourth year of law school through which the student can finally learn to practice law. Most law schools, however, are content to promote alternative paths that students are unprepared to pursue, hoping for the return to “normalcy” when they can revive the funnel to the large law firms and thereby shore up their US News ranking.
If law schools fail to reform legal education to prepare their students to practice law at a reasonable cost and to serve the legal needs of the public, the legislature should enact a law reinstituting the former system by which lawyers became members of the bar – “reading the law”. California, Vermont, Virginia, New York, Maine. Washington and Wyoming still have variations on this process whereby an applicant may take the bar exam after study under a judge or practicing attorney for an extended period of time. Such a law should also establish an office within the Executive Branch which would provide limited supplementary training to advise and support those pursuing this option.
We do not need another law school. We need to demand that the current ones uphold the fundamental values of the legal profession and devote their efforts to meeting the needs of their students and the public.
Ronald W. Fox, Esq. directs the Center for Professional Development in the Law and is the author of Lawful Pursuit: Careers in Public Interest Law