Changing Legal Education Landscape: Report from the Massachusetts Bar Association Task Force on Law, The Economy and Underemployment

With the fall of Dewey & LeBoeuf, the big law firm model has been brought back into the spotlight and called into question. Alexandre Montagu offers up an analysis in his Huffington Post article, “What the Future Looks Like for Lawyers,” pointing out that law firms have gotten bigger, not smaller, in response to technological advancements and the changing legal landscape.

Much of this is nothing new. The legal industry has been in upheaval since the recession, which shed a bright light on not only the big law firm model, but the state of the legal industry and legal education as well. Montagu points to some of these in his article, noting that clients “are unwilling to pay ever higher hourly rates, especially for junior lawyers who are being trained on the client’s dime.” Again, nothing new. The economy tightened the wallets of many, and forced law firms, lawyers and clients to re-examine costs.

Part of that re-examination produced the realization that law school teaches the law with the expectation that the hiring law firm will take care of the rest. And it is at the law school level where change will be felt, and ripple out to the rest of the legal profession.

We previously blogged about the interdisciplinary approach being undertaken at Stanford Law School, creating cross-cultural immersion for the many different paths lawyers can choose today. Technology has opened many doors, created points of overlap that didn’t exist before and set the stage for a shift in both how legal services are delivered, and how they are, for lack of a better word, consumed. While it hit the law firms first, it has trickled down to legal education as well, and is taking root.

The Massachusetts Bar Association recently published a report (PDF) from its Task Force on Law, The Economy and Underemployment that looks at the medical school model, the dental school model, obstacles to employment in the legal field and then offers up some solutions. It does a deep dive into the medical school model, the dental school model and draws comparisons to the current law school model. It states the following comparisons between medical school and law school:

Second, approximately two years of the standard four-year medical school program is devoted to rotations through a variety of specialties. By the time medical students make decisions about their preferred residencies and the specialties they will pursue, they have already had significant experience in, and exposure to, a broad range of medical fields and are thereby able to make more fully informed career decisions. By contrast, few law students receive exposure to more than one area of legal practice before accepting their first job, and that practice area may or may not be one to which the law school graduate was previously exposed, or had an interest in pursuing.

Third, the medical residency component of medical education provides true hands-on training and is funded by the federal government. Unlike the law school model, medical practitioners do not bear the cost of training doctors. Also unlike the law school model, every medical school graduate is virtually guaranteed to receive the basic training required to practice medicine within their self-selected area of specialization.

The most interesting comparison has to do with funding. The study notes that “Medicare pays $9.1 billion per year to teaching hospitals for resident salaries and other teaching costs. Once the residency is complete, physicians are eligible to become Board Certified in their chosen areas of specialization.” Law school, by contrast, is funded by charging tuition and fees, much like a university. The report sums up its comparisons by stating the following:

Medical (including residency training) and dental schools provide students/graduates with the hands-on practical experience necessary to secure gainful employment and practice independently immediately upon the completion of their formal education. Private practitioners do not bear the cost of training doctors or dentists. The result of these myriad factors is a limited supply of doctors and dentists, relatively high demand for their services, and very low or nonexistent levels of unemployment.

In other words, by the time medical and dental students sit for their boards, they have had practical, hands-on training in various disciplines. So not only do they possess the knowledge, but also the skill set required to be a doctor or dentist in the “real world.”

The rest of the report goes on to address the question: What can law schools learn from this comparison?

It does a good job of summing up barriers, or obstacles, to law practice after graduation, such as:

It lays out the current rules, the challenges presented for gainful employment in the legal field in Massachusetts and sets out recommendations for improvement the same way it did with legal education, presenting a full picture of the state of legal education and profession in Massachusetts.

The report concludes by presenting action items:

    A. Shovel-Ready Projects

  1. Lawyer referral services
  2. Reduced-fee panels
  3. Limited assistance representation
  4. Bar advocate programs and children and family law appointments
  5. Senior Partners for Justice
  6. Volunteer Lawyers Project
  7. Mentoring
    B. ready WIth some InVestment

  1. Law-school-funded law clerks
  2. Post-graduate clinics
    C. Long-Term SolutIon

  1. The law school law firm

The report concludes with a call to action:

Every member of the legal community will need to participate to assist new law graduates in overcoming the challenges of the current legal market.

Progress from merely identifying and acknowledging a need for change to finding and enacting solutions continues. Perhaps a change in law school curriculum across the board is coming soon, too.