I had the honor of attending the District of Columbia Circuit Judicial Conference this week. (Thank you, Judge Kessler). Among the presentations this morning was a panel on the Future of Legal Education. Deans Erwin Chemerinsky from Irvine School of Law, Veryl Miles from Catholic Columbus School of Law and David Van Zandt from North Western presented.
They discussed at length their concerns that the shrinking large law firm employment market was driving changes in legal education. They focused on the need to ensure that their students would be competitive for the remaining "big law” jobs. I stood in line to ask a question, but the program ended before they got to my spot in the queue. The program, however, does require a response.
There are more than 37 million people in the United States living below the federal poverty line and scores of millions others who while not technically "poor” have inadequate incomes. There are very limited legal services for those at the very bottom of the income scale and for those who have too much income to qualify for a free lawyer, but too little to pay a lawyer, there is nothing. Around ½ of one percent of the legal industry is dedicated to serving people with low-incomes. The overwhelming majority of money and lawyer time is dedicated to business interests and the concerns of the wealthy.
While law schools are not solely responsible for this disparity in access, they play a role. The singularly important US News and World report rankings weigh heavily the rate of law placement in high paying corporate jobs, and as the deans each admitted this morning, these rankings are everything. As a consequence, legal education has been designed to make students attractive for firm jobs, the cost of education has risen to match law firm salaries and the shrinking law firm job pipeline has law schools in a panic.
I suggest that law schools, at least as represented by these deans, have misconstrued their role. It was telling that even when they discussed clinical legal education, it was in the context of teaching skills that were transferable to a business related law practice.
I recognize that the view from academia is not monolithic and that not all law schools or faculty are the same. There are terrific public interest programs and a few public interest law schools. These important programs prove the point I am trying to make, rather than take away from it. There is a large unmet need for lawyers for ordinary people.
The link between law schools and big law feeds the perverse misallocation of legal resources. Rather than target training for the highest paying elite jobs, schools should look to teach students to serve where the needs are the greatest. The "academy” may find it less prestigious to teach students who will go into small practices that are affordable to the middle class or into legal services. It might mean that tuitions should be lower so that the salary pressures are less extreme. But the social good that comes with greater access for those who are now shut out will be huge. There must be some gratification in teaching students to make a career out of finding justice and service.