Prospects Dim for Law Students OR The Light at the End of the Funnel

A week ago today, I submitted the following to the New York Times with a request that it be considered for an op-ed stating, as required, that it had not been previously published. The paper’s guidelines state that if you receive no telephone call or e-mail within three business days, you should assume that the paper has decided not to print the submission.With that in mind here is the comment I sent to the paper.

The Light at the End of the Funnel

By Ronald W. Fox

The theme of Downturn Dims Prospects Even at Top Law Schools (August 26, 2009) is the negative impact on law students of the reduced hiring by large law firms.

Twenty five years ago this week I became the Public Interest Adviser at Harvard Law School. Over the next five years, based on conversations with students and placement staff at law schools across the country, I concluded that more than half of all law students hoped to work with individuals or small entities.

Sadly, the law schools, deaf to their students’ career aspirations, failed them: did not teach them to practice law; did not teach them that lawyers must be committed to taking positions consistent with their professional and personal values; and did not make them aware of the wide range of options for lawyers.

They did, however, set up a well-staffed extremely efficient on-campus interviewing program limited to large law firms, the only ones who could predict their needs two years in advance. These large firms were eager to hire and were quite successful.

In most selective law schools nearly ninety-five (95) per cent of the graduates of each class flowed through the “funnel” to jobs in those firms representing primarily large corporations.

Since I left that position twenty years ago this month, I have had the privilege of working with lawyers dissatisfied with the path they had traveled. Most hoped that the benefits of a law degree would be autonomy, intellectual stimulation, knowledge of a trade, respect, reasonable income and a life of serving others.

Instead many found themselves unhappy in their jobs but felt trapped. With few skills, little awareness of any options or how to look for unadvertised positions, they could not even begin to search for a new position until they regained their self-confidence and a sense of self-worth.

I strongly believe that much of the well-publicized malaise and dissatisfaction within the legal profession is caused by the neglect of, and the disinterest of the law schools’ faculties and staff in, the careers of their students.

While the law schools in the past have been wildly successful in raising the cost of attending law school far beyond the rate of inflation often justifying increases (and the debt required to afford it) by not so subtle promises of high-paying positions in large law firms, this is no longer the case.

What the writer of the article might have suggested is that the prospects are dim, not for the students, but for the law schools, as prospective law students, aware of what some have referred to as the law school financial hoax stop applying to law schools that refuse to prepare them to practice law for a reasonable tuition.

The writer might also have looked into the connection between the law schools’ neglect of their students and the unmet legal needs of the public.

Upon hearing of the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, my wife and I took our 10 year old grandson to the JFK Library and read in the family’s statement about “his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all.”

Much like what we are facing on the issue of healthcare, but not as well publicized, are statistics that indicate that eighty (80) percent of the legal needs of the 45,000,000 least wealthy members of the public are not met.

According to the ABA’s MacCrate Report, a fundamental value of the legal profession is the commitment of lawyers to: promoting justice, fairness, and morality; helping the profession ensure legal services to those who can’t pay; and enhancing the capacity of legal institutions to do justice.

But the lawyers who are law professors and deans of law schools may not be living up to this commitment to justice if they are not preparing students to represent those with middle or low income, not making students aware that two-thirds of all lawyers in private practice are in firms of 5 or less lawyers (including one-half who are solos) and not reducing the cost to attend law school so that debt load does not drive career choice.

They certainly are not eliminating the funnel, the on-campus interview program which “places” students rather than helping them to actively “choose” what interests them.

We are faced with a situation where at least one-half the law students in the country would like to provide services to individuals and have little to no interest in large law firms while millions of the public are in need of their services.

Will law schools take no action except wistfully yearn for a return to the halcyon days when they will again divert law students from representing the public, funnel students to large law firms, and continue without restraint to raise salaries and tuition, all under the banner of “law is now a business”?

Or will they incorporate the fundamental values of the legal profession and act, not based on self-interest and those of large law firms, but for the benefit of law students and the public. If they do, we can be proud of law schools and consider them partners in Senator Kennedy’s “tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all.”

Ronald W. Fox is the founder and primary consultant of the Center for Professional Development in the Law a/k/a Career Planning for Lawyers .

Additional Biographical Information
Since 1990, Ron has: provided individual guidance to lawyers in transition seeking positions consistent with their personal values and their professional goals; posted on his Lawyer Satisfaction Blog ; consulted to over 25 law schools, including Cornell, Boston College, Notre Dame and Northwestern; presented workshops for the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York; created and facilitated the ABA Public Service Division’s “Town Meeting” for the six Washington D.C. law schools; and authored Lawful Pursuit: Careers in Public Interest Law published by the ABA Law Student Division;

Ron graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963 and practiced law in a variety of settings for 20 years including two law firms he founded. In 1974 he was one of the first providers of divorce mediation and was active in developing that field until 1990. Working with bar associations, he designed and created numerous lawyer referral and other programs aimed at the delivery of legal services to low and middle income individuals. From 1983-1989 Ron worked at Harvard Law School providing career planning services to law students pursuing careers serving the legal needs of the public and also co-founded the Public Interest Committee of NALP.