I think the major problem with David Segal’s November 19, 2011 article in The New York Times, like much of what has been written in the vein lately, is that the perspective is way too narrowly on the large law firms and the elite law schools. While many law schools follow the lead of the elites, many also do not, but most of the schools who do not follow the model as closely are the lower ranked schools. The large law firms could solve some of their problems by recruiting at law schools that actually do produce practice ready graduates. USNews is also a big factor and could change the ranking formula to account for practice ready curriculum and teaching excellence. I realize that there has been a trickle down effect in the legal job market so that all new graduates are likely to find themselves competing with more experienced lawyers for any openings, but that is likely a very short term effect, and many of the newly unemployed former associates from large firms will find that they actually did not get much useful transferable experience during the first couple of years at those firms.
I think that the article and the economy are likely to increase the rate of change in law school curricula, and that is a good thing. But more importantly, for me, the current situation can be a blessing in disguise. At my school, and I am sure at many others, I regularly hear students and recent grads talk about the reasons that they came to law school as related to wanting to do some good, make some change, serve communities that are underserved, etc. Of course they want to live a decent comfortable life and the debt loads are scary, but they chose to come to law school anyway because of the less tangible rewards at least as much as the financial ones. If the focus in the profession can shift away from money and how much you can make if you become a lawyer, and move more toward the other rewards, then this economic crisis will turn out to be a real blessing. I think this article still seems to buy into the monetary and financial rewards model, and that is both inaccurate and sad.
I also am tired of hearing about the shrinking job market. Though it is certainly true that there has been a loss of legal jobs, there has also been an large increase in the unmet legal needs of people, though most of the people whose legal needs are unmet are people who are struggling with their finances because of the weak economy. But there are vast opportunities out there for lawyers who are willing to serve those clients and charge reasonable fees. Such a practice can be financially rewarding as well as permitting lawyers to maintain work life balance and to help people who really appreciate the legal work.
Perhaps each of us who teaches at a school or in a program that helps law students prepare not just for practice but for a full and rewarding life should invite Mr. Segal to come and visit. Maybe his perspective would change. Maybe he could be as effective in supporting the good things that are happening as he is in identifying the problems, because there is no doubt that many of the problems he discusses are real.