Since the great recession, dismal unemployment statistics in the legal services market have made college graduates think twice before attending law school. Fears of unemployment quite often meant not considering law school at all.
For six years after the great recession of 2007, the number of law school admission tests (LSAT) administered plummeted by 45%. Today, as evidence trickles in that full-time attorney employment and LSAT test taking are on the rise, or at least stable, the important question becomes how to avoid overstuffing the industry again and repeating our mistakes.
Few have maintained a glamorous view of the law in light of the never-ending stream of legal graduate horror stories. College-aged interns can scarcely visit a major-market city without bumping into professionals with a cautionary law-school tale. And there is some legislative pressure to make loan-issuing more difficult, especially at non-accredited, for-profit schools.
But we have little reason to believe that a profession so thoroughly laced with tradition, formality, and predictable, lock-step career advancement, not to mention strict bar passage requirements, cannot attribute part of its fall to structural problems much deeper than market forces.
Consider the ease with which bachelor’s degree holders may enter law school today. Thomas M. Cooley law school, the largest law school in the United States by enrollment, accepted 74% of its applicants in 2014. The class went on to earn only a 55% bar passage rate, 23% worse than each’s state’s respective average.
At the same time, it can be extraordinarily difficult for pre-law college students to gain exposure to the real practice of law. If a senior is really passionate about practicing law, the next step is obvious: enroll! Right?
But the reality is that, to a prospective law student, the idea of slaying foes in the courtroom appeals more than the typical drudgery of law.
Part of the problem is that law, unlike marketing, journalism, politics, business, and any number of other professions, remains largely inaccessible in practical form until well after law school enrollment. Law-oriented public policy internships for undergraduates (think Washington, D.C., Department of Justice, etc) rely on law, and probably provide excellent experience alongside great attorneys. But they do not expose students to a real law firm environment, not to mention the legal work most will likely be doing upon (law school) graduation.
Even the smartest undergraduate will have trouble finding genuine law firm internships. Granted, the legal profession must abide by certain standards. But it nevertheless separates a good deal of students from the experiences they need to make the right decision about law school.
Students confronted with a lack of opportunities could turn to legal non-profits, which often provide a wide range of basic legal services and therefore could offer undergraduates excellent experience. What’s more, a recent slump in nationwide legal-aid funding would presumably favor undergraduates often eager to work for free.
Legal aid organizations in the state of Massachusetts, for example, turned away two-thirds of applicants in 2014. Tasked with helping people on shoestring budgets, legal aid organizations are only slightly less constrained than their clients.
Legal aid organizations practice law just like any other law firm, living and dying by the same professional standards, albeit with less money. So while there may be a few limited opportunities, most will remain hidden from the students who need practical experience the most.
If we believe that necessity is the mother of invention, than these problems may soon give birth to innovating solutions. The key question is whether or not entrepreneurs can engineer a legal services model that lowers barriers without sacrificing quality.
At first, students would benefit almost as an afterthought, the key effects being felt in legal aid organizations. Nevertheless, the increased availability of serious law-related experiences would probably help skew law school towards more motivated students, a result that could reverberate through the entire law community.
We need law school students, and attorneys, who genuinely love their work. And when it comes to answering those kinds of questions, there will simply never be a substitute for practical experience. The need for legal services innovation is great, but who will answer the call?