As the third and final year of my law school experience draws to a close, I find myself at a point of reflection.
1. What is the Purpose of Law School?
For the last year, I have been dwelling on what purpose our three-year stint in law school serves. It is true that the requirement of law school serves as one of several barriers (others being a bar examination, moral character examination, and the MPRE) to joining the professional ranks of lawyers. But what purpose does it serve beyond this? Is it to teach us the subjects and skills necessary to pass the bar or practice law? Or is it a forum for academics to fill our minds with research so disconnected from the actual practice of law that it serves us little for the cost we pay? My experiences regretfully point to the latter.
My frustration begins with the professors who announce on the first day of class, “If you were looking for a class to help you pass the bar, then you are in the wrong place.” What other purpose does this type of class serve? It certainly lacks any practical application to the practice of law, and if it fails to teach us the basic legal principles needed to pass a minimum competency exam (the bar), then it provides little value. Perhaps we should also blame these types of classes for our bar passage rate drop last July and for adding one more expense, the bar review course, to the exorbitant cost of legal education.
Law school should serve the purpose of teaching skills and principles necessary to pass the bar exam. Three years barely allows time for anything else. Also, emphasis should be put on training professors to actually teach instead of pressuring them to research and publish. My time spent as a visiting student at another institution unequivocally demonstrated the value of learning from trained teachers rather than a collection of “experts.”
Finally, I believe that the school should expand opportunities to pursue professional training in applicable legal skills. To the last end, I believe USD has made strides by offering “skills” classes in trial advocacy, legal drafting, advanced research and writing, negotiations, and many others. Still, shouldn’t more be done to add value to the steep cost of our degree?
2. Employment, Career Services, and Expectations
As a recent USD Law graduate pointed out to me while discussing a recent New York Times article,1 we are in the midst of an education bubble. The market for legal services continues to shrink as the number of lawyers and lawyers-in-training swells. Fueling this bubble is access to credit in the form of federal educational loans and the idea that law school will provide opportunity to any and all but especially to those who did not acquire marketable skills as undergraduates. Our education is powerful, and generally useful, but it cannot and will not create opportunity where none exists.
I often wonder if our time, money, and energy would have been better spent learning computer engineering or science or some other skill more desirable in a dynamic technology and science-oriented growth area of our economy. Perhaps it is hard to accept that the debt incurred by most to attain this education has yielded little in return and mortgaged more than should have been risked. The cost of a legal education, foregoing years of income, the debt, and the lack of opportunity make a legal education a poor business and professional decision for most. I am thankful for the skills and work experience I acquired before going to law school. I would not know what I would do if I could not offer something other than my legal training.
Couple this reality with attending a school in a small, competitive legal market with limited institutional support and few connections to other markets. A handful of my classmates have secured jobs. They run the gamete from those in the top ten or five percent (who are the ones who are supposed to have jobs) to those near the bottom. But for the rest of us, the opportunities that our institution’s Career Services department provides are disappointing.
My time at another institution showed me that any school can reach far and wide to find opportunity for its students. Not that this provides an employment guarantee or relieves the student of the hard work of actually getting a job. The other institution’s efforts gave guidance, support, and hope. USD Law fails us fundamentally in this regard.
I find it disheartening that those who benefit the most are those who need the least help. I understand that being in the top of the class provides different or better opportunity—and that the top students drive the numbers that help decide our school rank (which means little in the practice of law). But it strikes me as absurd that my tuition pays to provide opportunity and success, not for the majority, but for the few. If the opportunities for most will spring only from our own efforts to gain experience as clerks and interns and to network our way to employment, then I fail to see the value of our time and money invested at USD Law. I would have much rather put this money towards attending more professional conferences, networking in my field of interest, and pursuing opportunities beyond the San Diego market.
I hope that these words do not offend but instead bring to light an institutional inequity and our own misplaced expectations. I am hopeful that we all will find employment. I am unsure of, however, how many of us will find legal opportunities. I think it honest to say that we will go wherever opportunity presents itself (most likely outside of San Diego), and that opportunity will be more in line with the skills we brought with us to law school than the skills we acquired while we were here.
1David Segal, Is Law School a Losing Game?, N.Y. Times, Jan. 8, 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/business/09law.html.