Failing the Bar Examination – The Disintegration of the Legal Profession

With all that is happening today, I thought back to an article I wrote shortly after the August, 1997, release of the Boston Bar Association’s (BBA) Report of Professional Fulfillment and the subsequent press conference. I wonder to what extent the article describes the current state of the legal profession in Boston and nationally. I would appreciate your comments. 


Failing the Bar Examination:

The Disintegration of the Legal Profession

       On the surface, the Boston Bar Association’s (BBA) Report of Professional Fulfillment describes a few of the most egregious causes of the lawyer dissatisfaction lawyers raised and studied more in depth over the last fifteen years. For example the concerns of law school faculty “about whether the law school curriculum adequately prepares law students for the growing challenges of practice” is overshadowed by the 1992 American Bar Association’s MacCrate Report which, after noting the “troubling fact” that “so many young lawyers are seen as lacking the required skills and values at the time the lawyer assumes fall responsibility for handling a client’s legal affairs”, found that the law schools primarily teach only two of the ten fundamental skills needed by a lawyer. Commentators have criticized law schools for most of this century for being graduate schools of thinking rather than professional training facilities, like medical schools.

       But after reading the quote in the Boston Globe from a member of the task force – “The Profession is becoming a business … It’s not a calling any more” – I realized that, in fact, the BBA Report offers much insight into the decline and disintegration of this occupation into a business. The key to understanding the present plight of the profession comes not from the BBA Report’s description of the concerns of lawyers but from its “recommendations”. There seems to be no meaningful attempt to provide suggestions which would remedy the problems raised by the students and the lawyers. At first blush, this might seem incomprehensible to the casual reader.

       For example, the BBA Report refers to the effect on careers of the high cost of law school: “Because of this substantial debt burden, law students feel that their career options are severely limited. While many students entering law school because of their interest in public service, after financing their education, most students pursue employment in the private sector, particularly large law firms, in order to begin to repay their debt. (During the last fifteen years, at many highly selective law schools, while 40% of those entering wanted to serve the legal needs of the public, as many as 95% of the graduates began their careers working for commercial interests in large law firms.) It is insufficient to simply suggest that the BBA “encourage a national organization, such as the American Bar Association, to conduct a comprehensive study of the student debt issue.”? Why not pursue the suggestions of the recent graduates who questioned the cost of a legal        education and felt that law school was not worth its high price and design some less expensive alternatives to the three-year legal education including a two-year academic program followed by an apprenticeship?

       When faced with evidence that those who graduate from law school are unable to undertake competent representation of a client, it is not sufficient for the BBA to simply recommend that law schools “be encouraged to examine their curriculum”? Why not follow the lead of the ABA and require the law schools to prepare its graduates to participate effectively in the legal profession and to affirm that education in lawyering skills and professional values is central to the mission of law schools. Why not offer the BBA’s vast knowledge of its members and put it at the disposal of the law schools to teach faculty and students about the practice of law?

       In response to the complaints by associates about the lack of training given to them, it is inadequate to simply recommend that “law firms attempt to ensure that associates have appropriate work experience with assignments which expose them to the spectrum of skills appropriate to their level. Why not require that law firms prepare their associates so they can competently represent a client?

       By far the most damaging allegation appears on page 10 of the BBA Report: “Associates believe that firms will tolerate a substantial amount of abuse of associates by a partner who is perceived to be economically valuable to the firm.” It is not enough to suggest as a remedy for the abuse of associates that firms train partners to be managers and allow associates to evaluate the partners skills? Why doesn’t the BBA demand that the abuse end and establish procedures to stop it?

      The reason for the BBA Report’s missing sense of outrage and its weak suggestions follows from its stated assumption that professional fulfillment is first and foremost the responsibility of the lawyer, not the institutions; and its request that the reader not return to the past, be realistic and recognize that many of the negative changes such as the commercialization of the practice of law are permanent.

      We should not allow the institutions to abdicate their responsibilites and we should not accept any “reality” that justifies actions or practices inconsistent with the fundamental values of the legal profession. In the past there was a respected profession – independent lawyers serving the public – a profession which offered the promises of knowledge of a craft, intellectual stimulation, autonomy, respect, a reasonable income and the opportunity to provide a meaningful service to the public.

      The law school that allows its students to graduate with inadequate training and pressures them through debt into positions where the promises of the profession are not met, is no longer entitled to call itself a professional school.

      The law firm that fails to train its associates, that allows them to be abused should not be accorded respect within the legal profession.

      The bar association that stands by and allows this to continue can call itself a trade group but may have lost its right to refer to itself as a professional organization.

      The reduced sense of fulfillment of so many lawyers is a justified reaction to their failure to achieve the goals they had a reason to expect when they entered law school but which have been denied to them.

      My nearly forty years in the legal profession has reluctantly convinced me that the solutions to the ills of the profession are not likely to be generated from within the legal community. Changes and reforms will have to come from those most harmed when lawyering is a business and when there is less emphasis on the teaching of competence and the value  of promoting justice, fairness and morality at all levels of our society.

      Seventeen years ago, Lloyd Cutler, former president of the ABA, observed that 95% of lawyers time was devoted to the legal issues of the 1% wealthiest members of our society. As law school graduates take positions they do not desire in large firms, the more than 200,000,000 members of our society with legitimate claims in areas such as housing, healthcare, education and employment have no access to the  legal system or these lawyers who hoped to represent them.

      Change will come only if those considering entering the profession, law students and lawyers, those who guide and advise them, the public and its representatives in non-profit organizations and in government not only look to the institutions of the legal community for solutions but demand that the institutions take action to recognize, teach, preserve, uphold, police, and enforce compliance with the fundamental values of the legal profession.

      If we begin, then perhaps some day we will be able to once again look at this occupation and proudly call it a calling and a profession.