The seven-year law degree

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There are a couple of well-known phenomena about legal careers that, when juxtaposed, might give us better insight into how lawyers enter the profession.

The first is the common assumption that a law degree is far easier postgraduate degree to obtain than, say, a medical degree or Ph.D. Would-be doctors spend four years in medical school, which is extremely hard to get into and not exactly easy to graduate from; thereafter, they spend anywhere from three to eight years in internship and residency. To acquire a Ph.D, you need a Master’s (usually two years) and a Doctorate, which is at least another four, and you need to be extraordinarily bright. Other degrees with various specializations can be equally daunting.

Law, on the other hand, requires just three years of law school, and either the passage of a one-time Bar exam (e.g., the U.S.) or the completion of a one-year apprenticeship period (e.g., Canada). Moreover, the failure rate in law school is far lower than in other postgraduate programs. Once you’re admitted, you’re almost guaranteed to graduate and very likely to be called to the Bar soon thereafter, at which point you have the means to stay employed pretty much as long as you want.

Depending on the region where you work, your employer, what kind of law you practise, how good you are at it, and how attached you are to a well-rounded life outside the work sphere, you’ll then generate an annual income ranging anywhere from $30,000 up to millions of dollars. Even if your debt load leaving school is upwards of $100,000, that’s a pretty fine return on investment and a fairly low-risk and low-demand route into what is still a respected profession.

The second phenomenon is the disconnect and dissatisfaction experienced by many new law graduates during their first few years of practice, especially in large firms. A recent Hildebrandt study seriously questioned the perception that big-firm associates are an altogether miserable lot, but many of these lawyers nonetheless experience angst, unhappiness and disillusionment as they make the adjustment from law school and from the promises of flexible, family-friendly environments these firms increasingly make.

Unlike many Boomer partners, I don’t put this unhappiness down to Millennials’ laziness or sense of entitlement. What I think really upsets these new lawyers is the massive gap between expectations and reality, and even more, the deeply unsettling thought that their harrowing experiences as associates are the norm and establish the template for the rest of their legal lives. Thanks to big firms’ omnipresence in law schools, many new lawyers assume that this is the default setting for the legal profession, and this is what they’ll be stuck doing all their lives.

It’s possible we could address both of these phenomena at once. What if we stopped regarding law school graduation and the call to the Bar as the end of the lawyer qualification period? What if we thought of it instead as the midpoint?

Suppose we thought of the legal profession admission process as lasting seven years: three years to get the degree, up to one year to pass through the Bar exam/articling gauntlet, and three more years as “lawyer interns” picking up knowledge, skills, experience and contacts that law schools don’t and can’t deliver. At that point, new lawyers would feel sufficiently confident about the profession and their place in it that they could then really start their careers in earnest — and having paid down a decent chunk of their education debt in the process.

If a person needs three years to understand the law, maybe that person also needs another three years to become equally proficient and comfortable with the law’s practical application, a far more complex subject. If a newly graduated lawyer understood that she was spending her first three years of practice “sorting things out” — that these years could be considered almost an extended work term that has no particular bearing on what she’ll do next — we’d probably have calmer and happier new lawyers.

This isn’t a proposal to extend the actual qualification process to seven years (though there is something to be said for the idea of “lawyer interns,” the more I think of it). I’m just suggesting that if we readjusted new lawyers’ expectations for how long it takes to really understand the profession and their place within in, they’d enter the law feeling less like panicky impostors yoked to the wheel of a narrow type of practice. They’d be better able to put their first few years of practice in perspective and to make conscious choices about the skills and knowledge enhancement they want for the balance of their careers. And our profession might feel a little better about the length of time it takes to really become a lawyer.

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3 Responses to “The seven-year law degree”

  1. Alastair Clarke

    Jordan,

    Brilliant post, as usual. I am thrilled that you are using the medium of a blog to share your insight.

    My first reaction to your above post is: you are absolutely right. Every law graduate that I know (myself included), knew little to nothing about the actual practice of law prior to stepping into the job. Even students who have excelled in coursework on related topics struggle to put theory into practice.

    Take, for example, a simple real estate transaction. I friend who aced “Land Transactions” in law school yet, when faced with an actual transaction, he had no idea where to start. I have had similar experiences in Immigration Law. A strong mentor who can guide us through the nuts and bolts of the practice is truly invaluable.

    As you say, law graduates probably could use three years of acting as “interns” until we are sufficiently qualified to really call ourselves “lawyers”. There is a reason that a law firm is called a “practice”. Akin to medical “interns” (who often spend 7 years as “interns”), we could continue to hone our skills under the expertise of mentors.

    My wife recently witnessed a neurosurgery with one surgeon and two “interns”. One intern had practiced 7 years while the other had practiced 4. During the surgery, the surgeon would often guide or instruct the interns (out of necessity or pomp, I really can’t say) on proper procedures. My point is simply: we may also use the guidance.

    I love your image of articling students as “panicky impostors yoked to the wheel”. I can empathize.

    My second reaction is: yes, and we’re moving in the opposite direction. As you are acutely aware, the LSUC has proposed abolishing the articling requirement altogether. So, instead of more guidance and instruction, future “Millenials” may get less. This is a truly a sad state of affairs. If it goes forward, newly-minted law graduates (all 1700 of them in 2012) will be able to put out a shingle right after they pass the Bar. I pity their first clients.

    Anyhow, that’s my two cents…

  2. Gregory D. Horne

    “As you are acutely aware, the LSUC has proposed abolishing the articling requirement altogether. If it goes forward, newly-minted law graduates (all 1700 of them in 2012) will be able to put out a shingle right after they pass the Bar. I pity their first clients.”

    The proposal makes sense if you consider that many newly graduated law students will probably seek employment in small to medium-sized established law firms. As a potential law student myself, I have to wonder whether law school graduates would be better served by having mentors during their early years of practice, but avoiding the limitations of traditional articling. I have read articles about the low quality of legal exposure many articling students endure in law firms and upon completion are no better for the experience.

  3. Annatashia

    I’m not a lawyer but I’m working on becoming a law student. My questions is, what is articling? And how does it relate to the original subject.

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