After three years of higher education and after about $100-200,000 of constantly accruing debt, law grads enter a packed job market. A market where these fresh, newly-appointed esquires, find their skills are not needed.
While the national unemployment rate is 8.2% as of May 2012 according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the current unemployment rate for new law school graduates is 85.6%, according to a press release by the Association for Legal Career Professionals. According to that same release only 65.4% of the recent grads who did find work acquired a job for which bar passage is required.
Even the graduates who pass the bar and obtain one of these few illusive positions where a fledgling attorney can actually use his/her lengthy, expensive education, are not generally prepared to practice.
“Law school prepares you to pass the bar exam, not to practice law, not to be a lawyer,” Stephanie Anderson explained. Anderson graduated from University of Missouri—Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law in 2011 and subsequently passed the Missouri Bar.
“Law school teaches you to be competitive and then you will get ahead. Some of the top people in my class will make horrible attorneys because they have no people skills, no ability to negotiate. They memorized stuff for the exam and studied the hardest. This does not necessarily mean you will be a good attorney,” elaborated Autumn Huston, who received her J.D. from St. Thomas University Law School in Florida and her L.L.M. from George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C.
Everyone I met related to the legal practice, the proverbial “they,” say about law school that, “The first year they scare you to death, the second year they work you to death and the third year they bore you to death.” With the help of hindsight, (I graduated in May 2012) I have verified this statement’s accuracy.
The first year they bring you in, cocky but scared, excited but apprehensive, and intelligent but ignorant. Everyone thinks they know, and few know what they don’t know. Two days of property class fixed that problem for me.
After a short time in law school I began to experience feelings reminiscent of an epistemology class I took in undergrad. In epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, we discussed what we could and could not ever know. I accepted that I could never know whether or not I was a figment of my own or someone else’s, imagination, a character in a play or even a brain in a vat. But once I realized I knew nothing, I could actually learn something. The first year of law school has the same effect.
“The first year provided an excellent overview of the main areas,” Josh Wiseman who graduated from UMKC this May explained. Every law student spends the first year in basic core classes, contracts, property, torts (injury to one’s person or property aka lawsuits), criminal law, civil procedure, constitutional law and legal writing courses.
They’re not kidding when they say that the second year works you to death. At this point students begin to branch off onto their varying veins of study. Some walk on a clear-cut path, others search for their way through the weeds and vines of trial and error. Still, certain advanced core classes, such as a Uniform Commercial Code class (a code pertaining to commercial contracts), are required.
While the 2Ls progress and choose their own classes, professors pile on the work. The classes descend deeper into a subject matter. The reading assignments weigh heavier. The workload takes over. Many disappear into their 2L year, barely ever coming up for air, for food or even, for beer, although the law school organizations do provide substantial opportunities for free-spirited distractions.
And, amongst the rising tide of second year, 2Ls begin the job search. These students scour the local law offices, the happy hours, desperate for any connection, any driplet of experience to develop their still-in-developmental-stage skills.
“I got a job but a lot of people couldn’t,” Wiseman said leaning back in his school office chair, “So I got experience that other people didn’t.”
“Without my internships, I wouldn’t have known what I was doing,” Sarah Werner, a UMKC School of Law graduate supposed. Werner further explained that she gained a bounty of theoretical skills, but few tangible skills from her classroom experiences.
“In the overall perspective, they drag it out too much. We have to take required classes for stuff we won’t ever do,” Wiseman added.
“Law school is too long. Six semesters is not necessary,” Chris Hawkins a recent UMKC graduate protested.
3L year is spent finishing up core classes and trying to procure a career. Class, the readings and the work seem to have moved slower 3L year. As their brains became lawyers, classes that would have seemed dreadfully impossible the year before were conquered with ease.
Hawkins described these growing reflexes as the Smell Test, the ability to analyze with the background of life experience to find what factor does not fit, even if you have no clue why. The smell test, Hawkins clarifies, “Is a reason, a spot to dig.”
“We learned to think like lawyers, Catalina Velarde, another UMKC graduate asserted. “It’s a very positive change. I feel I’m a better listener, participant in news and everything around me.”
Even though they can think like attorneys, these graduates do not feel able to act as attorneys.
“It’s one thing to know what the book says. I need to know what I can actually use,” Trisha Green a UMKC Juris Doctorate expressed with a cool frustration.
Some teachers seem to recognize the student’s desires or needs such as Francis Hannah who teaches a variety of property-related classes at UMKC. Hawkins and Wiseman took Hannah’s estate planning and trust class in which each student assisted a client. Each student was responsible for contacting the client, interviewing and communicating with the client, and preparing an estate plan for the client. Both students claimed they learned significant skills such as counseling and drafting during the process.
At the end of May the Juris Doctorates graduate and celebrate. About two weeks later preparations for the state bar exam begin, and the anti-climax plummets, They spend the next two months wading and swimming in, surrounded and engulfed by, law. The law consumes them. Life becomes one continuous hypothetical where friends, family and even strangers become part of a continuous fact pattern, a legal problem to solve.
But the bar, as put by several Barbri professors, is not real life. Barbri is a bar preparation program that a high proportion of preppers use. Those who take the bar must memorize the elements of 17 areas of law so that they’re prepared for each element to be chosen among the lucky few for on essay portion.
“I don’t know what they’re trying to do with that test,” Angela Dudley, a 2011 UMKC graduate, and current Jackson County court clerk illustrated by shaking her head. “Most of what they test is stuff you have to look up, that you would never need to know on the spot.”
Velarde described the bar as “a hazing ritual, a rite of passage.”
Taking the test elucidated this purpose to me, and I found the experience enlightening, but I still believe that a law license should mean something more than having passed a written test.
Among the extensive pool of law grads I talked to throughout the last few months, including many I met in Jefferson City at the bar test, few feel prepared to practice law. However, 89% of those who took the test in 2011 passed, according to the adaptibar.com, a bar review web site. While most bar takers pass, and thus receive licenses to practice law, most do not feel qualified to do so.
Many of these graduates believed some sort of adaptation was necessary. Several suggested the third year be transformed to more closely resemble programs for medicine, dentistry and psychology. Students of these professions must complete extensive clinical experience before they are released to fend for themselves or, more accurately, for patients.
These recent Juris Doctorates did not seem to be complaining about their education, because they praised its ability to instill issue spotting, research and analytical skills that will serve them as attorneys. However, they thirst to learn more about performing their daily tasks so that they’re ready before they are released into the wild.
The law profession requires, or allows, students to find their own experience while they’re in school and after. While this system does create positive senses of autonomy and competition, it can lead to ineffective attorneys if the job market lacks positions. While some students were unable to find jobs, and thus experience, they still may pass the bar.
I tried talking to a Washington University School of Law graduate who sat next to me at the bar exam. In response to my questioning about the insufficiency of this test to determine our capabilities as lawyers, he answered that he was counting on poor lawyers passing so that he could get ahead of them. I would have written his name down, but we were not allowed to bring anything into the test.
Despite this sometimes prevailing attitude, an attorney is meant to be an advocate. A lawyer’s purpose, Dudley explained, is to “Do what a client needs and wants. You do the best you can for your client, provide a service to them.”
For a more client-centered approach, graduates requested classes in the technical and practical aspects of lawyering.
UMKC does have clinics and a writing program available to teach some of these skills, such as a solo practitioner clinic that Anderson regretted not taking, but these classes are optional. The consensus from recent graduates shows that students want and, think they need, a greater emphasis on clinical experience. They think that law schools should not only offer, but require more clinic hours.
Justin Sullivan, a UMKC grad explained his experience in an advanced legal writing course this semester. The class required students to draft letters to fictional clients and attorneys as well as court documents. The class also required participation in a motion for summary judgment.
As Alex Edelman, another UMKC grad explained, “Legal writing needs more resources,” Edelman also thought the writing program at UMKC could be improved by a different teaching method. Now, the teachers give a vague explanation, let students try on their own, then turn in an assignment to be graded. “You can’t just tell someone how to do it by knowing how to do it,” Edelman added.
Sullivan thought the advanced writing course improved upon this issue from the introductory courses. The advanced course, under Professor Aaron House, allowed students a chance to rewrite their drafts to improve their skills and their grades.
However, Sullivan appended, “The direction is unclear and geared towards people with experience. The guys who knock it out in class, have jobs and already do it every day, but I’m not saying you should punish the successful.” Some teacher’s lack of clarity might be meant to encourage and force students to figure problems out for themselves, a skill that attorneys must possess, but students want to know how to do it correctly for sure not matter what “it” is.
Thus, Edelman stressed his belief that a higher percentage of school funding should be invested in the legal writing program because of the program’s significance in creating useful attorneys. He clarified, “A school’s biggest accomplishment should be in training lawyers, not in scholarship”