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Are Law Schools Like GM? Why Profs Should Mull End of ‘Salad Days’

Posted Jul 7, 2009 8:50 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Indiana University law professor William Henderson remembers his youth in Cleveland during the 1970s and ’80s. Many of his friends’ parents worked for General Motors, which offered high pay, amazing benefits, predictable hours and long vacations.

“I remember thinking at the time that GM was both complacent and invincible,” Henderson writes in cross posts at the Legal Profession Blog and Empirical Legal Studies. “It turned out that I was only half right. So I worry about my own industry. Do I have the mindset of a GM employee circa 1979?"

Henderson hopes not. But he notes a recent essay for the Am Law Daily by Paul Lippe in which he argued that legal education is growing increasingly distant from the profession. “According to Paul, it is not that we are working on irrelevant stuff,” Henderson writes. “It is worse than that: We are enjoying a comfortable living while loading our students up with debt and having a low opinion of practicing lawyers and the clients they service.”

Henderson thinks law schools need to become thought leaders considering the problems of the modern legal profession. He notes three issues touched on by Lippe in other columns that deserve attention:

1) The quality and cost of legal education. Over the last 30 years, the cost of legal education has increased about three times faster than average household incomes. Law schools need to propose ways to reduce the cost or give students a skill set likely to provide a substantial return on investment. They also need to consider how much the legal economy needs to recover so students can support their debt load.

“It is all too easy to assume that the market will rebound next year, or 2011 at the latest,” Henderson writes. “To this I might ask, ‘What is the basis for the optimism?’ The salad days of 2004 to 2008 were driven by a Wall Street juggernaut that destroyed the U.S. investment banking industry, which was the historical client basis for the industry's most prestigious law firms.”

2) The nature and cost of civil litigation. Due to electronic discovery, civil litigation has become more time-consuming and expensive. Litigants’ financial means increasingly determine whether they can pursue their cases in court. How can costs be reduced? Or how can legal disputes be anticipated and avoided?

3) The shifting nature of clients. At one time, most law grads became “people lawyers” working as general practitioners for people. “That world no longer exists,” Henderson writes. “The overwhelming majority of law school graduates will serve as ‘thing’ lawyers, either for government, private industry, or a public interest cause.” Yet the profession’s regulatory framework continues to premised on the idea that lawyers serve clients who are people, rather than things.

Henderson concludes his post with this summary: “We have to fully engage in the problems of the modern legal profession and be willing to fall flat on our faces. Sounds interesting. Sign me up.”

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