Legal Education Stinks
The President of The State Bar of California, Howard B. Miller, didn't actually use the word "stinks." But that is a fair reading of his assessment of what attorneys know immediately after they graduate law school and pass the bar exam. Here are his exact words, as they appear in the May 2010 issue of the California Bar Journal:
For the foreseeable future the starter jobs that provided traditional training for those lawyers are not coming back (See Miller, Structural or Cyclical?, President’s Column, February 2010 California Bar Journal). Out of necessity, and without any practical experience, many unemployed lawyers are or will be setting up their own solo, usually community-based, practices. Those practices can be enormously satisfying, and when done well are needed by clients. Given the current state of legal education and what the bar exam tests, however, it is far from clear those lawyers are qualified to do so, and will not just be a risk to themselves but to their potential clients.
When a lawyer such as Mr. Miller writes that it's "far from clear" whether beginning lawyers are "qualified," that's as close as he likely to get to saying publicly that they are a risk to their clients. This is not the first time that I'm writing about a prominent member of the California legal establishment who is indicting the quality of law school education. What's refreshing about Mr. Miller's column is that he also speaks candidly about the value of the Bar Examination. He recognizes that the test is a deeply flawed measure of whether someone is qualified to practice law.
How many would want a surgeon to operate on them who had only been tested on a written exam, without seeing or operating on a patient, even in a simulation? The bar exam continues to exist as an accepted but flawed tradition, with only tangential problem solving connections to representing clients or any realistic certification of the ability to practice law. The coming changes in law practice, in its pricing models and client expectations for community-based solo practices, will require those of us who have been deeply involved in the current structure of the bar exam to think through what an effective qualification exam must be, which, in addition, can have an impact on necessary changes at the law schools as well.
To his credit, Mr. Miller addresses issues that are generally not discussed in public. His article mentions that more law students need to weigh the costs and benefits of going to law school. He even mentions that law school publish questionable statistics about how many of their graduates are employed following graduation, and suggests that this might be causing students to overestimate the financial rewards of becoming a lawyer. All of this is commendable and timely.
But there is a different approach to this problem—the Lawyer On A leash approach. It's terrific to see articles like the one written by Mr. Miller. But his term as President of the State Bar ends in a few months. There is a much more powerful and sustainable way to change the dynamic of the legal profession and law school education. And that that's to educate you the clients. It's going to take a lot longer to convince law school deans and the creators of the bar examination that they are involved in a deeply flawed enterprise. I have much more faith that, once more current and potetial clients know what lawyers say to each other about the quality of legal education, they will take appropriate steps to protect themselves. That's the Lawyer On A Leash approach.