Law School Deans, Law Schools

Duke Law School Dean David Levi Comes Out Swinging for Young Lawyers

David Levi

Dean David Levi of Duke Law School

Law schools — as Elie likes to remind readers on a frequent basis — are businesses. Like any good CEO should, Duke Law School dean David Levi has written an editorial defending his product: young lawyers.

In the National Law Journal, he starts off by acknowledging that the legal market for young lawyers is in worse shape than Duke’s reputation after the lacrosse scandal, and that this is “understandable” given the laws of supply and demand. (A subtle acknowledgment of there being too many law schools?) He then writes:

What is not understandable is the surprising amount of criticism heaped upon younger lawyers, offered as if to justify placing a disproportionate share of the economic downturn on their shoulders.

The criticism comes from law firm managers, in-house counsel and former lawyers who now comment on the legal profession…

Ahem. *Uncomfortable pause.*

They most likely represent a minority view, but they are vocal. They say that clients are no longer willing to pay for the work of young associates because their work is “worthless.” We might expect clients to make any argument that could lead to a lower bill, particularly during an economic downturn. But it is wrong and surprising for experienced lawyers inside and outside of firms to acquiesce in, even reinforce, this line of argument.

So how does Dean Levi undermine the argument?

Levi draws on his experience as both a law school dean and former chief judge of the Eastern District of California. He starts off by talking about the joys of working with his newly minted lawyer clerks. Essentially, Levi notes that new lawyers might be a little worthless when they start, but that they are “productive, insightful, careful, skillful and hardworking,” and thus quick, easy, and fun to train. Kind of like golden retrievers with JDs.

But this of course is what many critics of young lawyers argue — they come into the legal profession needing to be trained. They’re not “worthless” exactly, but they’re also not worth $350/hour. John Steele at the Legal Ethics Forum takes issue with Dean Levi’s starting his argument this way:

Dean Levi purports to counter the market-based criticism that many law school graduates aren’t prepared to be economically useful upon graduation, but to do so it he initially talks about the emotional satisfactions of teaching and mentoring young lawyers — which, even if true, isn’t really germane to the economic point.

Of course, law schools have made strides in recent years to try to make law school education more practical. Duke is featured in this NLJ article from last year on the topic, for its Dean’s Lecture Series, which brings in “a wide array of attorneys to discuss their practices and professional values plus business issues and innovation in the profession.”

(Duke, of course, is doing something right, judging from their 100% employed-at-graduation numbers from the last few years.)

Dean Levi writes:

Whatever room there may be for continued improvement to the law school curriculum, there is little doubt that the young lawyers whom we graduate today are equally well and better prepared for practice than at any other time in our history. Our graduates have had the benefit of superb clinical and experiential educational opportunities. Many of them already will have appeared in court, written appellate briefs and participated in simulated deals and transactions. They have had the discipline of thinking about difficult legal issues and applying that theoretical knowledge in the search for solutions to real-world problems. Many will graduate with joint degrees in business, economics, public policy, international law and the sciences. All of them have had substantial legal writing experience. Most of them are “tech savvy” in ways that both amaze and enormously benefit their less proficient elders.

In other words, hire Dukies!

Despite the hoorah-for-young-lawyers tone of the piece, it ends on a somber note:

It may well be that young associates are paid too much and that their time is billed out at too high a rate. Market forces will determine both in the long run. When young associates in some locations began to make more than the federal judges for whom they had clerked in the preceding one or two years, many of us felt that there was something seriously out of whack on both sides of the comparison. But it breaks faith with our professional values and responsibilities to acquiesce in hyperbolic and misleading statements suggesting that young lawyers are unproductive and of little value.

As the tipster who sent this along noted, “It’s a nice counter to much of the commentary out there.” Elie’s on vacation, so I can go ahead and agree with Dean Levi: Give the legal golden retrievers a bone.

In defense of young lawyers [National Law Journal]
David F. Levi, “In defense of young lawyers” [Legal Ethics Forum]

Earlier: The Secret to ‘100% Employed at Graduation’: Duke’s Bridge to Practice

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