US NEWS RANKINGS & LAW SCHOOLS: A DISSERVICE TO THE LEGAL NEEDS OF THE PUBLIC!
When the U.S. News & World Report issued its ranking of law schools in March, 1990, I drafted a letter criticizing one major defect in its analysis; i.e., failing to include as a criterion the extent to which the law school ensures that its graduates fulfill the legal profession’s obligation to serve the legal needs of the public. I never sent the letter but, as I reread it, I was not surprised as I realized that most of it was still relevant and current. I decided to post it with edits such as raising the starting salary at BigLaw from $70,000. I reconsidered because I thought that you might want to be aware of how much change is needed in the education provided by law schools and how little progress has been made in the last 20 years.
To what extent does your rating chart perpetuate or create the crisis in public interest law? To what extent will schools try to conform to your criteria? To what extent will students in colleges choose law schools based on the criteria which you use? To what extent will law schools continue to encourage the kind of results that will be defined as success?
If the criteria of the best law school is the one carrying out its responsibility to the public to ensure that its graduates fulfill the obligation to serve the legal needs of the public, the order may have to be reversed. We can’t be saying that society won.
Studies, statements and articles all indicate that anywhere from ninety to ninety-seven percent of the public cannot afford legal services for their housing, health, employment, education or family legal problems. We are left at the present time with a situation best described by Lloyd Cutler, in 1980, and still appropriate, when he said, “The rich who pay our (lawyer) fees are less than 1% of our fellow citizens, but they get at least 95% of our time. The disadvantaged we serve for nothing are perhaps 20-25% of the population and get at most 5% of our time. The remaining 75% cannot afford to consult us and get virtually none of our time.”
A recent ABA study found that legal services and all pro bono programs provide representation to the disadvantaged in only one of every fourteen of their problems. THE NET RESULT IS THAT THE LEGAL SYSTEM SERVES WELL ONLY THE EQUIVALENT OF ABOUT SIX MILLION PEOPLE AND LEAVES OUT OF THE JUSTICE SYSTEM ABOUT 244,000,000. As Derek Bok noted in 1982, “The blunt inexcusable fact is that this nation, which prides itself on efficiency and justice, has developed a legal system that is the most expensive in the world, yet cannot manage to protect the rights of most of its citizens.”
There is a vast need for lawyers in this society to represent the millions unable to afford to seek economic or social justice. I usually equate the word “success’ as a triumph or a victory. If that is your intention, are you implying that the schools with the highest rating have the most victories? If so, it is important to know who won and perhaps find out who lost.
In the explanation of “Placement” in your March 19, 1990, edition you state, “To the student, the value of a professional degree often is determined by its worth on the job market.” Some describe this as the ability to be able to go someplace that is good. Others think of a professional school as a place to go to become good. For many that I met in the years that I directed public interest career planning at Harvard Law School, the value of the degree is the skills and knowledge they obtained enabling them to find work with significant responsibility and the opportunity to do something to better society, to solve some of its terrible problems, to help people truly needing legal services who without them would not have access to the legal system, to obtain a feeling of self-worth, to find satisfaction, to be part of the movement for social and economic justice, while at the same time having a significant amount of control and autonomy in making decisions about matters that are important to their lives.
Are there many law students who feel this way – who would like to use their legal education to help individuals in the personal plight problems they face in their daily lives, in health, housing, education, employment, family and children, environment and discrimination? In a 1988 Harvard Law School survey students were asked why they came to law school. The responses mentioned most frequently (40%) were intellectual stimulation and the pursuit of public service careers. My independent research indicated that 40% of each class wanted to pursue public interest careers and 40% did in fact attend public interest workshops and/or devote substantial time to these areas either during the summer or in a clinical course. What they want from the law school is interested, experienced, involved and concerned faculty, staff, alumni/ae who will support them in their desire to pursue careers serving the legal needs of the public generally and specifically, provide them with individual career and job guidance.
During the 80’s a small number of employers – large law firms – wooed and “won” the services of almost 90% of those law students graduating from the most selective law schools. After a first year in which students are consumed with learning to think like a lawyer, they often find a position for the first summer and immediately upon the return to law school are faced with the on-campus interviewing process in which a number of very large law firms, representing a tiny percentage of those in our society, spend millions of dollars and inundate law schools with interviewers overwhelming and often, in fact, becoming the Placement system at most of these schools. The appearance on the campus of this small number of employers, not at all representative of the wide range of legal employers, often convinced students that they represented the world of law practice.
Because these firms monopolized the visible system and offered large sums of money, professional brochures and Broadway tickets, students, without the life experience needed to make a sophisticated analysis of their real financial needs or how to balance issues of income with career goals and life satisfaction, were often convinced that because they were in debt for `lots of money’ they needed to earn lots of money. Many students twisted, distorted and give up their beliefs, values and ideals to fit the perceived needs of these employers. Students who did not believe all that was being presented to them were not being provided with sufficient information about other options.
Public Interest and small firms were left out of the hiring process. Those who found out were astounded to learn that only 15% of those who practiced law were in law firms with 10 or more lawyers and that more than half of all practicing lawyers are sole practitioners. Most students were pressured by forces all around them, faculty, staff, other students, family and friends to take jobs with these employers. The higher the salary the greater the victory.
A week before graduation, Lillian came in to see me and said “Ron, would you do me a favor. If you see me with my parents at the graduation reception, would you please sit down and explain to them that it is acceptable for a Harvard Law School student to graduate and not have a job? Lillian knew that she wanted to work on Capitol Hill and that the only way to get a position there was to immediately respond to the notices. To do so, you had to be living in DC which she did after graduation and did find a position in October. The last I knew she was involved on the national level with issues of significant concern to women. Having not found her position until four months after graduation, she would be an example of a placement “failure”.
After being courted by these firms in the fall of their second year, the decision is made on December 15. They then take the job in the summer and, in the boom times, ninety percent would return with offers of permanent employment. There is then the opportunity to interview in the fall of the third year. About half of the students accepted the offer from the summer employer and another half took offers from another firm they interviewed. For most students, their involvement with law school ends as they begin their second year.
In a recent recommendation for someone who also realized that the kind of position he wanted would not be available until after he graduated, I wrote “It is hard to imagine the stress involved in facing your peers every day – almost all of whom are “winners” – they struggled to get into the “best” law school and have not “won the prize” – $70,000 to start at the biggest firm in . . (select a city). Many question your abilities and value when you don’t have (or it is that you can’t get?) a job.”
Every year only about 5% of the graduates took public interest positions similar to the situation during the past decade at most highly selective law schools – over 90% of each graduating class taking positions, either immediately or after a judicial clerkship, with large law firms representing commercial institutions – 1% of the population.
Is this a successful law school in the placement area? That depends on what the role of the law school is. If its goal is to survive financially, then channeling students to large firms based on earned income potential and wealthy and contributing alumni/ae is a sign of success. If the goal is to provide equal access to the justice system, it has lost. If the goal is to provide a legal training and education for the students to enable them to find satisfaction in their careers, it has lost.
I would argue that the best school may be the school that is the most concerned and has the most substantial interest in what students do with their legal education – the one that provides students with the best preparation to take positions from which they will derive satisfaction – the one that recognizes the incredible dissatisfaction of its alumni/ae and the depth of the anguish of so many who feel that their careers and their lives are devoted to trivial pursuits. I would argue that the best law school is the one that takes most seriously its responsibility to provide lawyers to the society in such a way that there is equal access to the justice system – the one that says that the present situation in which almost all of this society cannot afford legal services is an abomination and a tragedy – the one that says that the responsibility for this lies primarily in the hands of the law schools and that they need to do all within their power to ensure that careers in human services, public interest and government are a realistic possibility for all those students who seek them.
The role of the law schools and the legal profession in this crisis is to state that there primary obligation is to the students and society – to let students and alumni/ae know that there are innumerable reasonable alternative options and to stop consciously or unconsciously acting as though their primary obligation is to serve the needs of the large law firms.
There needs to be strong support for and encouragement for students early in the first year to use the counseling and other services in the Career Services office. A student can not know about his or her options in the world of the practice of law without guidance. Many students are not interested in working for large businesses in large cities and it is not in the society’s best interests that they all do so. Very little in the way of career planning is done in the fall when it is needed. Time can only be devoted to serving the true needs of the large firms and what “appeared” to be the desires of the students. Very few, of course, had thought when they came to law school with a vision of sitting in a library for two years focused on Count 24 of the complaint in real estate deal gone sour. The staff had very little time and very little resources and very little support from the law school faculty and deans. What they do is to sacrifice the opportunity to provide meaningful career planning services.
There should be an examination of a student’s interests, skills, values and options before the search for a summer job begins – the opportunity to discover organizations, the ones most appropriate for them, in -small towns, in small law firms, in many small public interest and government agencies. In the fall of the second year students would begin the process by evaluating the previous summer’s experience. All on-campus interviewing would be moved to a time later in the academic year. No one law school which wants to improve its ranking in your survey would do so because the students at other schools would get the jobs being offered by those employers leading to a lower “score” although it would give government, public interest and other small law firms the opportunity to interview since the present system excludes those not aware of their hiring needs one year in advance. Without change the recruiting system will continue to be operated by and for the benefit of the large law firms.
The law school must also take responsibility for the fact that many generalizations about law practice remain unchallenged and that very little support is given to the study of the realities of the practice of law, Commonly heard statements include “Work in large firms is intellectually stimulating and important and one receives the best training there”, “Grades are very important in obtaining a job”, “There are no jobs in public interest and even if there were, most students can not afford to take them because of the amount of their debt”, “The work in public interest areas is boring, routine, uncreative and unimportant”, “There is no training in public interest jobs” and “It is important that you find a job and become employee rather than going out and creating your own institution”, Every one of these statements contains flaws. Each deserves to be talked about and treated with the respect given to cases in the classroom.
At least one study and the perception of students at many law schools is that the faculty role in this area can best be described as mostly indifference and lack of concern or interest in what students do after law school. I cannot recall one time in my six years that a member of the faculty contacted me for any public interest career information. Not until the faculty make the lack of diversity in law graduates’ career choices and the lack of access of the public to the legal system priorities is there likely to be a substantive change within the law schools.
Law schools have an obligation to do all within its power to help make careers in public service a reality for those wanting them. The law school has a stake in the career decisions and the career paths of its students, graduates and alumni/ae to the students, the legal profession and to society. If a substantial number of its graduates are dissatisfied about their careers and if a substantial proportion of the legal profession is failing to provide services to nearly ninety five per cent of the population, if no one goes to work helping those with low and moderate income with the legal problems they face in their daily lives, such as health, housing, education and family law, the law school is failing in a major aspect of its mission and is in danger of becoming irrelevant in the search for equal access to the justice system and the search for social and economic justice.
If the criteria of the best law school is the one that is providing the training and education for its graduates sufficient to allow them to find professional fulfillment, there may be no successes. It is difficult to fully relate the depths of the crisis. Every day for the last six years I heard from 1) frustrated students facing pressure from peers, the law school, financial institutions, family and society in general who wanted to use their legal education to help those in desperate need of legal services (who did not do so on graduation), 2) anguished alumni/ae practicing law in a corporate law firm wanting to leave, doing work that was, at best, boring and unsatisfying, and at worst, offensive and contrary to their deepest beliefs, not understanding how they ended up in this position wanting to know how they could make a transition into a public interest, human services or government position, or 3) an overworked and underpaid lawyer with a public interest law organization providing legal services to a terribly underrepresented group of people in an area of basic human necessities like housing or health asking if there were any students available to work for two months in the summer to alleviate some of the strain.
A substantial number of practicing lawyers are totally dissatisfied with their work, their profession and their lives. A recent ABA survey found that 66% of all practicing lawyers would change jobs if they had a reasonable alternative option. I recently spoke at a program sponsored by the Massachusetts Law School Consortium and the Massachusetts Bar Association on “Changing Directions: Career Options for Lawyers”. A staff person for the MBA stated that she had never had so many telephone inquiries about a panel. Many were turned away because the program was sold out a week efore the program and over 150 showed up to find out how to search for “alternative positions for lawyers both within the legal profession and in other fields,”
The law school also has an obligation to respond to the voices of its dissatisfied and disillusioned alumni/ae and to provide more resources such as the formation of a public interest alumni/ae committee which could create a public interest career advisors network. With such assistance many would be made aware of public interest options and some would take them and find satisfaction in the law rather then leaving it,
At the present time, the current slump in the economy has led to fewer large firm employers visiting schools and fewer positions. This should not be seen as a crisis. The crisis occurred in the 80’s in the days of placement success as described in the article.
The present situation is an opportune time to respond to the crisis and many law schools are doing so. Many have created “Career Services Offices” to replace the “Placement Office” – offices where the emphasis is on the students, their hopes, their visions and their dreams of how they want to use their legal education. Law schools are creating joint task forces including not just the career services staff but deans, faculty, other staff, students and alumni/ae to talk and create and implement programs to support the students pursuing public interest opportunities. Programs that make students aware of over 100 exciting and rewarding options they have – public interest law centers, legal services, district attorneys, small law firms that represent individuals in “personal plight” matters, public interest advocacy groups where there are no lawyers and the knowledge that one does not have to become an employee – that one can establish a practice or a non-profit organization. Programs that provide them with information about all these options, programs that inform them about how to choose and search for opportunities appropriate for them rather than relying on being “placed” in ones that are not, clinical opportunities to practice law while they are in law school, and sufficient staff to ensure that they can have meaningful individual guidance. Programs that teach and educate students that it is not enough to be able to go someplace that is good. Law school should be seen as a place where you receive an education in order to become good.