As recent law graduates continue to strenuously question the benefits of a JD degree, one response has been to suggest that the current generation of JDs suffers from an inflated sense of entitlement. This argument holds that would-be law students, should they decide to risk borrowing money to pay for an expensive JD, must be willing to take an active, entrepreneurial approach to their career. For graduates of non-elite schools, being entrepreneurial means hanging up a shingle and making one’s way as a solo practitioner soon after licensure. Or, it means young lawyers must start their careers on a precariously low rung, servicing their student loans while working as temporary project attorneys paid by the hour or as public sector attorneys with median starting salaries in the range of $42,000 to $50,000.
Even as law schools move toward greater transparency in reporting post-JD employment data, I predict a continuing disconnect between what young lawyers expect from their legal education and the reality they face upon graduation. The harsh post-graduation reality faced by many JDs greatly conflicts with the implicit story law schools tell students before and during law school. It may not be something that law schools ever directly state, but law school admissions staff, deans, and professors have long connected legal education with access to a “noble” profession that provides its members with a comfortable and esteemed position in society. The idea that law provides a clear path toward social mobility and respect, even though it might conflict with a school's actual employment numbers, is a powerful narrative that will continue to draw many to law school.
One of the premises in this implicit story is that successful legal careers will happen to young lawyers as long as they work hard. This idea has become deeply embedded in our legal culture, perhaps because older generations of lawyers, including most current law professors, began their careers during the height of the so-called Cravath model, where law firms mentored and groomed young lawyers along a set path from summer associate, to associate, to partner. Success within the Cravath model certainly required hard work, but it also provided a mentoring structure, generous salary, and a certain amount of job security.
With the current job-market the way it is, working hard is not enough to guarantee success. For instance, when we suggest that young lawyers take an entrepreneurial approach and hang up their own shingle, we are suggesting a radically different career model, one fraught with financial peril and risk. In this situation, an unknown and inexperienced attorney is expected to start a successful small business financed by vast amounts of non-dischargeable student-loan debt. This is not a standard recipe for small business success.
If entrepreneurship is a solution to the current crisis in legal education, then we must provide graduates with better kindling. Infusing more practice skills into legal education is one obvious step that most law schools have committed themselves to. But if we want to make it possible for new generations to make their way into the profession and not have it slide into an exclusively elite profession serving exclusively elite clients, then we have an obligation to make the JD radically less expensive.
Deeply reforming legal education means that legal educators may have to swallow some tough pills concerning their own professional identity and job security. Those of us who make a living educating soon-to-be lawyers have a moral obligation to put aside our self-interest and consider these issues.
-- Lucille A. Jewel, Assoc. Prof., Atlanta's John Marshall Law School