Carnegie in a Post-Downturn Light

Most faculties reacted to the Carnegie Report with a big yawn.  Been there; done that.  MacCrate.

And then the market crashed. 

The number of entry level positions for lawyers has severely contracted.  Big firms have “furloughed” new hires – it remains to be seen whether they really bring them on in January.  Third year students are returning from summer positions with big and medium firms — without offers.  Many firms have cancelled interviews with second year students, and those that are interviewing are hiring fewer summers.  Federal judges want clerks with firm experience – they are receiving resumes from attorneys with four and five years experience; firms want to hire out of clerkships.  Many federal judges are also converting at least one of their clerkships into a permanent position. Many of graduates just now finishing their clerkships have nowhere to go – unless they’ve lined up another clerkship which, of course, hurts graduating students. The federal government is hiring, but lawyers there say they are being inundated with resumes from mid-level associates for entry-level positions.

Firms say their “entire business model” is changing.  Many bet that on-campus interviewing will happen in the Spring rather than the Fall for second years.  Some predict that summer programs will disappear altogether. Others are wagering whether the “apprentice” model will really take hold, because clients allegedly don’t want to pay for the learning curve of first and second year associates. In any case, clients are forcing billing structure changes.  While we don’t know when or where it will all end,  a fair number of entry level lawyers will be backed up in the pipeline (small and medium firms are doing better than many larger firms, so we’ll see what the Spring holds). 

This all raises the question of whether these market changes will affect what we are doing with our students. It makes me wonder whether we should to revisit the Carnegie Report.  Should we be differently preparing students who may face a one- to two-year gap in obtaining legal employment that will provide them with the traditional training they would have received at a law firm?  Should we be filling the “training gap” by offering more externships for courts, government agencies, or nonprofits?  Some in the bar propose externships in law firms, which raises many more issues than can be addressed here.  But to the extent that the law schools funnel free labor to any entities that would otherwise hire attorneys, they will be exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. Presumably, a greater percentage of graduates will be hanging their shingle sooner rather than later, which possibly implicates our curriculum as well – perhaps we should include more courses related to professionalism and starting a law firm, with attendant skills courses focusing on the kinds of transactions in which these graduates are most likely to be engaged in a small firm. 

What , if anything, can we do for graduates who aren’t using their legal training now to enable them to maintain and develop their skill set for the future?

Any re-envisioning of the curriculum in response to a dramatically different market for lawyers, with an increased focus on professionalism and practice, raises questions about who we should look for in new faculty.  The Carnegie Report recommendations were significantly derived from engineering and medical schools, where professors continue to practice their respective professions as academics.  By contrast, law schools have increasingly hired new professors with little to no experience beyond their clerkships.  Many of these professors have neither the skill set nor the self-conception of a practicing lawyer, both of which Carnegie recommended we pass on to nascent lawyers.  Many law schools’ current budgets preclude them from adding significant numbers of contract faculty who might comprise a skills faculty.  Clinics that have historically relied on grant funding are also feeling the squeeze and are unlikely able to expand their capacity, at least as clinics traditionally function.

In sum, current market conditions for lawyers require us as stewards of our institutions to look beyond “what Career Services is doing” to what we as faculty need to be doing to prepare our students to weather hopefully short-term, but possibly long-term changes to the business model of legal practice – which assumes that most of our students will continue to choose this career path.  This should not be done in a vacuum, but requires conversation with multiple sectors of the bench and bar.

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2 Responses

  1. Aaron Titus says:

    As a recent graduate, I can vouch for the intense pressures on the legal job markets right now. Many of my friends are furloughed right now. As for me, I will be lucky enough to work with an acquaintance who has a few more years of legal experience and his own firm. I’ll be working “for fee,” which presents both substantial risks and opportunities.

    While the quality of my GW education was outstanding, the career services were geared toward students who wanted to work 80-90 hours per week at a large law firm and never see their families again. As an evening student with a family, I appreciated taking classes from full-time and adjunct professors to get a balanced perspective of legal theory, legal practice, and life-balance.

    Whenever I mentioned to career services that I did not intend to work in a big law firm, I received two distinct messages in response: 1. You’re on your own. Good luck. 2. You must be one of those people who want to do “something else” with their law degree, other than practice law.

    Though #2 is not entirely correct, may I suggest something heretical: What if law school taught some of those other things one can do with a legal degree? Many lawyers I know do not practice law- they are in real estate, investment, lobbying, business management, government, and a range of other activities. Yet law school provides precious little information about non-legal careers for those with a JD. I always sensed that among law professors, those who earn a JD and do not practice law are the illegitimate stepchildren of the profession. Perhaps it’s time to invite them back to the family reunion.

  2. John Steele says:

    It’s an important topic, and it’s nice to see professors struggling with it. But in describing the professors as “stewards,” and in suggesting that the solution will require conversations with sectors of the “bench and bar,” I can’t help but wonder if we’re leaving out the most important stakeholder: the students. They are taking on a lot of debt, are foregoing three years of income, and are facing a difficult market. We trusted them with the personal and financial decision to enter law school. Might we trust them with a far more significant role in choosing the curriculum?