A commenter on my earlier blog post stated that “[w]e need fewer law schools and fewer law students being educated at lower cost, not more law students.”
I wholeheartedly agree that in the realm of big and medium law firm jobs, we have too many lawyers competing for fewer and fewer jobs. But for all this talk of an oversupply of lawyers, we still have a severe access to justice problem in this country, with a substantial portion of low-income and middle-class Americans not getting their legal needs met. I believe there are untapped opportunities for lawyers who want to represent low-income and middle-class clients, but this type of career does not carry any of the prestige or stability of a traditional law firm job.
The reality is that lawyers who choose to start their careers representing individual clients in the public sector or as small firm/solo practitioners will make around $45,000 or less, which is similar to a social worker’s salary. Though social work is also a profession, in comparison to lawyers, social workers have dramatically different expectations in terms of salary, prestige, and status. Moreover, with debt loads approaching $100,000 or more, most of today’s law graduates simply cannot afford this career path.
How do we re-boot legal education to ensure that we still have lawyers who can serve individual clients in their communities? At this point, I'll borrow an idea from the environmental movement and say that I’d like to see legal education commit to fostering sustainability in the legal profession. Sustainability does not necessarily mean shutting all the law school doors, but it does mean changing and redirecting the current untrammeled growth model. It might mean opting out of the U.S. News/ABA model and founding new community-centered schools operating on a smaller scale. Sustainability would also require law schools to start linking admissions decisions and tuition rates to the number of lawyers entering the profession and the types of careers available to them.
Is sustainability in this context a naive idea? If we frame the issue in terms of resolving the legal education crisis and saving the legal profession, maybe we can persuade law schools to scale down. After all, in order to save the environment, individual consumers are willing to spend extra money to drive Priuses and buy organic food. But as many on this blog have noted, convincing entrenched institutions operating in a highly profitable system to change may not be possible.
What we have now is law school sprawl. And our sprawl makes it too expensive for young lawyers to commit to community-centered or public-service careers. If we continue down this path, the only lawyers left standing will be the credentialed graduates who can secure jobs at medium and large law firms, which primarily represent business and corporate interests. Non-traditional and non-elite law graduates will have nowhere to go. And low and middle-income clients will continue to be underserved.
-Lucille A. Jewel