Howard B. Miller, President of the State Bar of California, penned a provocative letter for the California Bar Journal. In it, Miller suggests that the California bar has a duty to help stem the tide of law students graduating with a crushing amount of educational debt:
Do we in the profession have an obligation to deal with all this — especially the State Bar of California? I think we do.
Miller criticizes a wide range of people who have roles in our system of legal education. It’s pretty awesome…
Miller first sets the stage of sadness recent law graduates are all too familiar with:
The average debt of law graduates now approaches or exceeds $100,000, and because of recent increases in tuition, especially at public institutions which historically have been more affordable, debt burdens will be even greater in a couple of years.
At least 10,000 lawyers, probably more, including many, many mid-level associates with no place to go, have been officially laid off during this recession. Many more have job offers with deferred entry dates, or are counted as “employed” while voluntarily interning for nothing, or are in temporary lawyer jobs reviewing documents for $15-$20 an hour, with no security and jobs that can disappear at any moment.
Yep, it sucks out there. But Miller rightly points out that law schools have been misleading prospective law students about how difficult it is to turn legal education into financial stability:
There is notoriously unreliable self-reporting by law schools and their graduates of employment statistics. They are unreliable in only one direction, since the self-reporting by law schools of “employment” of graduates at graduation and then nine months after graduation are, together, a significant factor in the U.S. News rankings — which are obsessed over, despite denials, by law schools and their constituencies. The anecdotes are as telling as the statistics: prestigious lawyers in the state are hiring their own children to work in their firms because even with their connections they were unable to find employment elsewhere. And if things do pick up, those in the classes of 2008, 2009 and now 2010, whatever they will have been doing, are unlikely to be viewed favorably by firms as first-year entry hires.
Preach on, brother Miller.
But he’s not all about the problems; Miller also has a few preliminary solutions. Somewhat surprisingly, Miller takes a whack at the bar exam itself:
[T]he Committee of Bar Examiners, in consultation with California-accredited as well as ABA law schools, needs to begin a serious study of what kind of tests will genuinely determine who is qualified to practice law. Even according to those who administer the bar exam, it is at best only a test of minimum competence of one atypical aspect of being a lawyer: the application through recall alone of certain black letter rules under artificial conditions. It uses computers, but only to write. The exam takes no advantage of modern technology to replicate client interviews, counseling, negotiation or trial activities with real time — realistic responses that could be used to judge true lawyer skills.
This is a recession solution that isn’t really getting enough play. If the part of the problem is that there are too many lawyers, if law schools have no problem stealing money from prospective students with no realistic chance of turning a J.D. into a profitable career — why not raise the entry requirements? It’s not like the bar exam is a good reflection of a person’s legal skills to begin with. A more rigorous licensing exam is an interesting solution to the “oversupply” problem.
But really, Miller’s main message is a call for transparency:
Finally, we need to be transparent with potential lawyers about the cost and benefits of studying law. All law schools need to gather, verify and report, in consistent and specified ways, the employment record of their graduates, as well report on those who may have started, paid tuition, but never graduated. A good place to start is with our own California-accredited and registered law schools, over which the State Bar and the Committee of Bar Examiners have jurisdiction.
Who wouldn’t love to see this? The ABA seems content to let the schools report whatever they want. U.S. News doesn’t seem to do any quality control to make sure that these schools aren’t misleading readers. Why can’t the state bar of California make sure that at least California schools are accurately reporting employment figures?
I’m sure that the California law schools will claim that reporting accurately will hurt their U.S. News rankings. But at some point, somebody is going to have to put “truth” ahead of “rankings.”
Miller might be onto something here. Let’s hope other state bars start to take a serious look at what is happening to young lawyers these days.
Truth in lending and in careers [California Bar Journal]
California Bar President pwns law schools in lengthy screed [The Legal Satyricon]