Resolving the legal education disconnect

By Published:

In conversation last week with a law school professor, the subject of law firms’ tunnel vision when recruiting law graduates came up. Firms focus relentlessly on the students with the highest grades, the professor lamented, even though these students can be one-dimensional performers with an affinity for the academic environment and no competing pressures outside the classroom. Contrast that with an older student, perhaps with a couple of kids and a part-time job, with or without a partner at home, who took an unorthodox route to law school and perhaps struggles to compete with the younger students — but who is still bright, hard-working, experienced and capable of being a standout lawyer. The firms never even look at graduates like that, and an opportunity is missed on both sides.

At first blush, I agreed with this. I’ve complained myself about the relatively unsophisticated approaches to recruitment that many law firms still take. The students most in demand are the top academic performers from the “top” schools, even though there’s nothing beyond the Cravath Theory to prove that students with high law school marks will make the best lawyers. Does a fleet of “A”s guarantee good lateral thinking, business acumen, client awareness or collaborative work habits? Of course not. Yet firms continue to flock to the academic stars while overlooking graduates who despite (or even because of) their unusual backgrounds would make superb lawyers whom clients cherish. Typical narrow-minded law firms.

Then I was struck by this thought: “Hang on. Who’s giving out these marks in the first place?” I turned back to the prof to ask whether the schools don’t bear responsibility of their own. If the older mother of two with a part-time job is more deserving of employment consideration than the 20-something with his nose in the books all year, why is she at the bottom of the graduating class while he’s at the top? Why doesn’t she get the A, if in fact she’s the stronger candidate to succeed?

But even as I asked the question, I already knew the answer. Law schools don’t assess students in terms of their likely success at the bar. They assess them the same way schools everywhere assess all their students — by the satisfactory achievement of knowledge standards, usually expressed in written form in short-term exams and long-term papers. In the same way that IQ tests measure only the taker’s ability to score well on such tests, so too do good marks in law school only measure one’s ability to complete law school courses to the school’s satisfaction. It has nothing to do with whether you’ll be a good lawyer someday. This is not a secret and it’s not a novel discovery. But the idea that law school achievement augurs professional success remains the fundamental assumption underlying law school, and the bar has accepted it for decades. It’s time for that to change.

The problem with using a law degree as the de facto qualification to seek admission to the bar, and the disconnect between the priorities of academia and the practicing bar, have never been so clear. A good example is a report recently released by a task force of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada on the common-law degree. It is not, by most measures, a radical document. It recommends that law societies in common-law jurisdictions adopt a uniform national requirement for entry to their bar admission programs, which has never existed and would certainly be nice to have. It does not recommend that law schools transform their curriculum, nor does it go nearly as far as the Best Practices Report, the Carnegie Report, or the ABA’s recent decision to focus on output measures when certifying law schools.

What the report does recommend is that every law school in Canada teach a stand-alone ethics and professional responsibility course, given the importance of these attributes to the practice of law. This has not gone over well with the law school community, to judge from comments in this Canadian Lawyer article from, among others, widely respected law professor Harry Arthurs:

[H]e finds it odd that the federation “took it upon themselves to lay down what law schools should be teaching and how they should use their resources and what their job is in general. Law societies, much less the federation, have no statutory power to tell law schools what to teach or to what end they should spend their scarce resources,” he says. … While Arthurs notes that the law society has the right to say who it will admit to practice, “they certainly can’t say to law schools, ‘You are going to teach legal ethics, you are going to teach certain skills competencies, and you are going to file a report annually which provides us with detailed information to demonstrate that you’re doing that.’”

Professor Arthurs is, of course, absolutely right. Law schools don’t report to law societies and are under no obligation to teach anything to their students simply because the law societies say so. His comments bring that fact into sharp relief — and should, I think, serve as the launching pad for the profession to rethink its traditional acceptance of the LL.B. or J.D. as the default qualification for entry into the profession. The first three years of its lawyers’ education and training are almost entirely out of the bar’s hands. That should strike the profession’s leaders as unacceptable and should galvanize them into doing something to correct it.

Let me be clear that this is not a call to impinge on law schools’ academic freedom or to take over the schools’ operation. I spent three years in law school, and running one is just about the last thing I’d want to do — they’re complex institutions whose management can be a challenging and thankless task. But they are not designed to be lawyer training facilities, and they are not practice-friendly. I still remember the law prof who told our class, “A students become professors, B students become judges, and C students become very rich lawyers.” I think he meant it to reassure us not to worry so much about grades. But it expressed perfectly the irrelevance of academic distinction to professional success, the self-perpetuating nature of law school achievement, and the remarkably arrogant belief that the highest form of legal accomplishment is the teaching of law.

The bar’s role is not to run law schools — lawyer-run institutions don’t tend to inspire confidence either. The bar’s role is to ensure that its members receive the best training available, in order to ensure the durability of professionalism and high-quality service to clients. I think that obliges the bar to look long and hard at the law degree and decide whether a three-year program over which the bar has no control is an appropriate prerequisite for practice. If the answer is yes, then the profession should quit complaining about what law school does and doesn’t do — lawyers don’t run law schools, and if they don’t care to create an alternative, they have nothing more to say on the subject. But if the answer is no, then the profession is obliged to come up with a prerequisite that it believes does provide appropriate preparation for admission to the bar, over which it does exercise an appropriate degree of control, and for which it bears complete responsibility (at considerable expense, I might add).

Should that come to pass, law schools will suddenly face competition in the lawyer training marketplace. And they’ll face a choice themselves: to maintain their current focus and perhaps risk a massive decline in enrollment and tuition, or to re-engineer themselves and compete directly with lawyer-operated training centers. That’s not a happy choice, and I don’t wish it on the schools gladly. But if and when the bar decides that it can no longer responsibly delegate the first three years of legal training to completely independent third parties, then that choice will arrive. This is a difficult but necessary process we can’t put off any longer.

Print Friendly

One Response to “Resolving the legal education disconnect”

  1. Joshua Kubicki

    This debate is obviously not restricted to just Canada but is present in the US as well. This article clearly delineates the current roles of all the major stakeholders in this arena. It would be easy to take the cynical perspective as many do – that none of the stakeholders – the Bars, the Law schools, the law firms – have an interest in altering the status quo. Whether or not actual law students want a change or not I am not sure how much research has been done in this area though I assume there would be a cross-section of stances. Nevertheless the business models of attorney education and recruiting is constructed around the status quo. Getting anyone (let alone lawyers) to change what could be perceived as a successful business model is challenging.

    A more instructive view but perhaps too “utopia-seeking” is to recognize that in order for any of this to change, the profession needs to begin to depart from a structured business mentality and look at the profession as a whole. But I fear this will not happen naturally – there must be a force in order to start this process. What that force is I am not sure but I have a suspicion it will involve actual students – after all they are the customers and products of these institutions.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

 

Post Categories