The seven-year law degree

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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