Lawyers for America – a modest proposal

The debate over whether or not law school is a “scam” would seem to be largely over. Court after court has dismissed cases against law schools for charges of misleading employment statistics except in one case in California where there were allegations of actual fraud, including an affidavit regarding shredding of documents. But the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court did issue an important reminder that law schools are a critical factor in shaping the law and owe at least a moral duty of candor to law students.

There are signs that law schools are already heeding that lesson by providing more detailed job statistics on their websites. Yet, as I have argued, even that information is relatively generic and only an individual analysis by a prospective student can provide students with a clear understanding of whether law school makes sense for them. Even if the economy continues its current slow recovery the job market will remain sluggish. Employers can afford to be picky and that will make job searches for all but a small handful of students challenging no matter where they go to school. Fortunately there are new income based repayment plans available.

The second indication that the debate is over is that, as I said would happen, law school applications have fallen off to pre-crisis levels and beyond. This is entirely consistent with patterns seen in the wake of past economic cycles, although the spike up and the spike down in the economy this time was much sharper.

The drop off in applications will and is forcing law schools to deepen internal debate about possible alternative models of legal education. That is happening in tandem with the longer range trends where technology and organizational restructuring of law firms is also taking place. In my previous post on this issue below I suggested some alternative approaches and, in fact, have been engaged for quite some time in discussions with colleagues at SCU about changes we can and I believe should make to our own program. We are beginning a search for new leadership at SCU and are hopeful of finding someone as our new Dean who will help guide this process.

But leaving aside the failed litigation strategy of the “scam” crowd and the unsurprising impact that falling application rates is having on resolving the “failing law school” crowd’s arguments, we are left with one very important problem: the thousands of successful law school graduates who passed the bar but have not been able to find jobs as lawyers or to find appropriate non-lawyer occupations and thus are facing a mountain of debt. I do not know the exact numbers but I think it is large enough to be considered an important problem for society as a whole not just lawyers and law schools. As a society, we should not be allowing these young people to waste the years of training we have invested in them.

I believe a proposal should be developed to solve the problem. It would work like Teach for America and I call it Lawyers for America. It would offer young unemployed or underemployed lawyers the chance to practice law serving an underserved community under the supervision of existing lawyers. One example: there are many thousands of small businesses in our poor and immigrant communities, including cleaning, housekeeping, gardening, construction and other services.  Many of these could be organized as LLCs thus shielding their owners from personal liability. This requires legal help.  These entities could use other legal advice as well. A legal service organization would be established in major urban areas that could provide these services.

The supervising lawyers could earn CLE or pro bono credit for their time. The law students would be provided a stipend for living expenses and more importantly would earn credits for debt relief. Every year of full time service would earn them 20% cancellation of their outstanding debt.

Now the people who actually lose cash in this exercise are the investors in the securitized loans that funded the law students while in school. But many of those investors are likely large institutions such as pension funds. Their boards of trustees should be brought into the program and be allowed to suggest ways the LFA lawyers could aid their constituencies.

A program like this that ran for perhaps five to ten years would allow an entire generation of young lawyers to learn their craft, relieve their debt, and contribute significantly to the wider society. They would emerge at the end of the program with either a genuinely sustainable reduced debt load or in some cases no debt at all. They would have skills and experience and perhaps new relationships that would make them employable as lawyers in what we all hope is a much healthier economy.