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Report: Law Schools Share Blame For Unemployment Among Recent Grads

BOSTON — Recent law school graduates face one of the worst-ever job markets for entry-level lawyers — and it’s not just the economy that gets the blame. A new report by the Massachusetts Bar Association says law schools themselves are a big part of the problem.

“Many new law students emerge from law schools unequipped to thrive in the current law economy,” the report says, leaving them in “desperate circumstances” as they search for jobs.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with the co-chair of the task force behind that report, Eric Parker, managing partner of the Boston law firm Parker Scheer LLP, and asked him just how bad things are for recent law school grads.

Eric Parker: They’re terrible. It’s difficult to say whether or not we’re actually setting a record. I’ve lived through a few downturns that were pretty nasty, but I think everybody is of the opinion that this one is really nasty.

Sacha Pfeiffer: This Mass Bar report says that the problem of unemployment among recent law school grads is caused both by the economy and by systemic problems in law school education here in Massachusetts. Let’s talk about the economy first. How is that affecting new lawyers?

Law firms were cutting back on their hiring because the volume of legal work available to them had been reduced. The second factor was that the corporate client was becoming more discriminating. It was saying, “You know what? For these rates I don’t need a first- or second-year associate doing the work. I would rather have somebody higher up on the food chain performing the legal services for us,” which then led law firms to be less interested in new grads.

You also say, however, that law schools themselves are not properly preparing students to be as competitive and marketable as possible. Where are the law schools falling down?

There is not a sufficient emphasis on practical skills, and so many law students graduate from law school with a high ratio of theoretical time and not enough hands-on practical skills that make them of interest to employers, particularly at smaller firms where the firms needs the associates to get going right out of the gate.

In fact, the report says law school should be modeled more like medical school or dental school. Tell us how you think law school should look more like medical training.

One of the things that became exceedingly apparent to us was that there is an enormous emphasis in medical and dental school on exposure to practical tasks. And, as a result, you end up with a graduate who has a higher market value in terms of delivering a skill that someone’s willing to pay for.

This task force also recommends the creation of something called a legal residency program, which would happen after the law student graduates from law school. What would that program be?

The model that we’re looking to create would be one where a defined curriculum would be structured around a particular practice area, which would provide the student with very focused training in that particular area of law. So somebody, for example, who is interested in tort litigation or somebody interested in divorce practice/domestic relations would have spent six months to a year following graduation honing those skills.

At a law firm? At a nonprofit? Where would they do this?

One of the things we talk about is the idea of, initially, a series of beta or test law firms that would conduct the program and provide us with feedback as to how the curriculum is working and how the students are doing in this kind of format.

But this is just a recommendation you’re making. So how do you actually convince law schools to dramatically revamp year three, and how do you convince law firms to embrace these very green lawyers?

That’s the $64,000 question. We can’t force the law schools to do anything; the MBA has no authority over the law schools. I think the best way to modify the curriculum in a law school is to show them what works.

Well, don’t we, in some ways, have a program that works, which is the Northeastern [University School of Law] co-op program, which has a fairly high rate of placing students? Why haven’t more people adopted it?

The Northeastern program is a fantastic model. In fact, it was probably the model that the task force was least critical of because it delivers exactly what we’re talking about here. Why more schools don’t adopt it? Because I think it’s difficult to turn a ship that big around given what they’re charged with each year. I mean, it’s just an enormous undertaking.

There’s also a recommendation in this report that might startle some people, which is basically that Massachusetts should make it harder to become a lawyer in terms of toughening law school admission standards and standards for passing the bar exam. Yet there are many stories about people who flunk the Massachusetts bar multiple times and ultimately go on to pass and become successful lawyers. Is there a risk here of creating artificial and unfairly high barriers to entry if we do this?

There is, and I think this is probably the most Draconian of the recommendations, and I think everyone felt that way. And I don’t think it was so much a recommendation as something we all need to confront, and that is that with nine schools feeding the pool of lawyers in Massachusetts –

The state’s nine law schools?

Yes, the nine law schools. We needed to look at what other states are doing to tighten their numbers. And Massachusetts, which has a greater than 80 percent pass rate on the bar, is toward the moral liberal. And then you have the California bar, which has a pass rate that’s somewhere in the 40s to 50s. And there are all sorts of reasons for this, but one of the strategies is potentially scaling the Massachusetts bar exam to conform to the national average.

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