You spend three years of your life going to law school. You spend over a hundred thousand dollars on getting that education. You take a difficult entrance exam to prove that you are qualified to practice law. You’d think that after all that you’d be able to convince sophisticated clients of your value as a lawyer.

You would, of course, be wrong.

The Wall Street Journal reports that over 20% of corporate clients simply refuse to pay for first- or second-year associate work on some matters.

This is a terrible indictment of the value of a legal education….

Today’s report isn’t telling us anything new. Clients have been reluctant to pay the bills for junior attorneys since the earliest days of the recession. And they’ve been openly willing to talk about the “worthlessness” of junior attorneys for some time.

We’ll table the fact that this prejudice against junior attorneys is kind of stupid. At most Biglaw firms, first- and second-year attorneys are given only work that a conscientious high school student could perform. While it might seem outrageous to pay the billing rates for the first-year associate to put together a “hot docs” binder, if clients would rather pay a fifth-year to do that work, I’m sure that law firms would be accommodating.

But whatever. Law firms will adjust, and in a free market, clients are free to spend their money inefficiently if they so choose.

The sad part about this story is the total lack of reaction from American law schools. Again, the Wall Street Journal’s report is not really new information. Law schools have had years to digest the information that clients think recent law school graduates are ill-prepared to advise them on their legal problems. Whether you go to a great school or one that gets sued over allegedly misleading employment statistics, clients are saying that you are not prepared to do what they need you to do.

Which is pathetic when you consider that you just spent three years and six figures to learn skills that people are allegedly willing to pay for. If law schools aren’t pumping out people who can convince clients to pay for their work, then what are law schools doing really?

Some argue that the American legal profession needs to move to an apprenticeship system, like they have in the U.K. That could be interesting. But note also that law starts in undergrad in Great Britain, and law schools don’t cost nearly as much as they do here. If you want to add an additional year or two of post-law-school training (at what will undoubtedly be a low or negligible salary), then the cost of the three years of “in class” training should go down dramatically. Or law school should be shortened to only one or two years. Or something. (See Lat’s suggestion in the New York Times, which combines apprenticeship with shortening law school.)

Law schools remain oblivious to reality. They just keep charging money, and putting kids through an education that is increasingly out of touch with what the market demands.

The clients’ unwillingness to pay is just another indication that law schools aren’t doing their jobs. But the clients can’t hold law schools accountable for their gross incompetence.

Only prospective law students can do that.

First-Year Associates: Are They Worth It? [WSJ Law Blog]

Earlier: Corporate General Counsel Puts Fear of God into Legal Educators


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