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How To Fix The American Legal Education System

Boston College students walk across the college campus (AP)

In the 1973 movie, “The Paper Chase,” John Houseman plays Charles W. Kingsfield, a fierce and brilliant contracts professor at Harvard Law School. He tells his students, “I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

A lot has changed since the days of Professor Kingsfield. No doubt, there are still rigorous and demanding law professors, but today American legal education is in crisis. At least that’s what Vincent Rougeau, the Dean of Boston College Law School, argues. Writing recently in The Atlantic, Rougeau says that not long ago, newly minted JDs could count on high-paying jobs at big legal firms. But those days are gone.

According to the American Bar Association, only 55 percent of law school graduates landed full-time jobs last year. A growing number of graduates are entering an increasingly uncertain job market burdened with as much as $150,000 debt. This raises the question: does it even makes sense to go to law school?


  • Vincent Rougeau,  dean of  Boston College Law School


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  • J__o__h__n

    Perhaps law students wouldn’t need to get high paying jobs to pay off loans if law school faculty were satisfied with middle class wages. 

  • David

    Amen. Ask the Dean how his middle class lifestyle is–oh wait, he gets a six figure salary that grows yearly. How sanctimonious. Charge students less, and stop preaching your garbage.

    • Tiptop

       Exactly!  Check out BC Law’s 990 and you’ll discover many professors making over $250,000 a year for teaching two or three classes a year.

      Also, how does the Dean propose to pay for this third year?  Oh right, he doesn’t.  Where did this man get his law degree?  He’s a preposterous buffoon.

      • BoredJD

        He probably got his law degree from a top school ike Harvard or Yale, then clerked for a prestigious judge, maybe even the Supreme Court. Then he worked for a big NYC/DC corporate law firm for one or two years, or maybe for some prestigious government organization doing high level policy work before seeking out the warm coccoon of law academia, where a lot of top top graduates end up because the hours are great, you don’t have to deal with the messy practice of law and client demands, and the pay/benefits are pretty damn good.

        Notice that: 1) he probably never practiced real law (i.e. representing clients) and 2) he has no idea what life is like for a student who goes to even a top 30 school like BC. The path is just different.

      • Ray

        You miss the point of his proposal.  He is saying that the employers would hire the third year students just like hospitals hire recent graduates of medical school during residency.  The expectation is that the students receive a lower salary because they’re receiving training through practical experience while still contributing to the hospital or law firm in the Dean’s model.

        The dilemma about salaries for law professors is that they need to be competitive with salaries at private firms or else the brightest lawyers would not have as much incentive to teach.

  • midtempo

    Most people hate lawyers, so it makes me wonder what kind of person wants to become one.

    • Morethanthat63

      thats so sad you feel that way.  I admired laywers in the Civil Rights movement when I was younger, and others who work to protect the rights of everyone. When i defend a drunk driver in court, people wonder why- i tell them because I want to make sure the government does thier job. Next time it could be an innocent person in that police station with no one to make sure their rights and hence all of our rights are protected. Yes lawyers have a bad rep, but there are many who are fine, upstanding members of society!

      • midtempo

        I can’t speak for other people, but my opinion is that the average person who needs a good lawyer (tenants, alleged criminals, consumers, etc.) are not getting one or can’t afford one and that they are overpowered by those who do have good lawyers (landlords, DA’s, corporations).  And that there are too many lawyers working for big corporations, for trusts and estates, wealthy people, and other questionable causes.   And that they like the job mainly because of the good money.  They think of pro bono work as a charitable thing they do on rare occasion, such as the AIDS walk they did last weekend, and not the real work they do.  And that most people don’t like lawyers until they actually need one.

        My landlord, who is an accountant and lives downstairs, is marrying his fiancee, who is a lawyer.  His fiancee (the lawyer) told me I should not have ordered cable service without consulting them because of “liability reasons” when a contractor walks in and works in the house.  (As if the Verizon didn’t insure their own contractors?)  Because he is marrying a lawyer, I want as little to do with him as possible anymore.

        Most lawyers are not Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

        • midtempo

           I would also like to add that theoretically, one doesn’t even need a lawyer at all to deal with a court or to fight a claim.  Everything is public information and is reasearchable.  My friend declared and was granted bankruptcy all on her own, and I respect her a lot for doing it without a lawyer.  The Internet is really changing the nature of the law profession just as it is changing the state of the real estate profession.  (What good is a real estate agent anyway? I can search for and research homes on my own and do my own price negotiating.)

          • Gmoore2

            ok pal. keep dreaming. The law may be public info and researchable, however, court procedure is very complicated and a person who does not have a law background will get their ass kicked against a party with a lawyer. i would like to see u defend or bring a forth a claim in a civil suit pro se. I would like to see you right a motion for summary judgment and research all the law for your claim. keep dreaming pal

          • Tjhansen

            Agreed. One has to go through CivPro, K, or Crim to understand the intricacies and depth of these disciplines to fully appreciate the difficulty one would surely encounter without a thorough procedural understanding.

        • Tiptop

          reason the average person can’t get an affordable lawyer is because of
          people like Vincent Rougeau who charge $125,454 to earn a law degree,
          not including the cost of living for those three years, cost of
          transportation, food, and books.  This also doesn’t account for the cost
          of a college degree, a prerequisite to obtaining a law degree. 

          • midtempo

            The expense of a law degree is not helping the cause, you are right about that.  It gives many graduates little choice but to seek out employment at high-paying law firms, most of whose work load is for corporations.

            With that in mind, I would have to say that UMass’s inituative to set up the state’s first law school this year is definitely a step in the right direction.

          • J__o__h__n

            With a glut of lawyers, is pouring tax money into an unaccredited law school a good idea?  Why not spend that money for more legal services for the public?

          • midtempo

             I think it’s a good idea mainly because the only people who can get a law degree are those who are willing to pay (or borrow) over $100,000 to pay for tuition.  That is just plain wrong.  It’s nice to finally have a choice in this state.  I imagine that a law school at UMass will attract a different TYPE of lawyer than what traditional law schools typically put out.

          • midtempo

             As far as I know — I could be wrong about this and if so please correct me — all schools must start out unaccredited when they are new.  They won’t have accreditation till they can prove that they have a useful program and can graduate students.

          • J__o__h__n

            It isn’t really new.  They bought one that had been unaccredited for years. 

          • Tiptop

            The big problem with UMass Law is that it doesn’t appear to be effective at all.  The primary reason law schools exist is to train individuals to attain a professional license – bar membership.  So far UMass Law is an unmitigated failure in this respect.  For example. for not a single graduate of UMass Law, taking the bar exam for the first time, passed the Feb. 2012 MA bar exam.  I don’t know why the powers that be don’t see this as outright fraud. 

          • midtempo

             When did UMass Law school begin their first class anyway?

          • Tjhansen

            2010. Don”t make the mistake of applying to this school. be patient and take the LSAT again if you need to improve your score. Then apply elsewhere.

          • Grmoore

            First off. Umass is accredited. Second 7 people took that exam in Feb. The test before the feb exam 80 percent passed. Finally, all those test takers where left overs from SNESL. 2010 was umass law’s first class and wont take the bar until 2013/2014. Also mass did not add a law school when Umass was created. Mass simply absorbed SNESL into the Umass system

          • TjHansen

            You are correct about the number of test takers. However, don’t lose sight of the fact thatthey were the product of a law school that merely changed its name and kept the internal staff structure. The results will be the same in the future_wait and see. BTW, the school was awarded only provisional accreditation in June 2012. They have three years to earn full accreditation which is unlikely.

          • Tjhansen

            They don’t care. Deval Patrick only sees a way to generate revenue for Taxachusetts!

          • TJhansen

            I went to Umass Law last year because I wanted to get a JD on the cheap. I should have taken the LSAT again to secure a better score and apply to a Boston school. Many of the students in my class didn’t have the basic writing skills that one should have established during their undergrad.

            The student body is comprised of those who scored poorly on the LSAT-myself included. Although I didn’t agree with the assertion that the LSAT is indicative of one’s success in law school, it is absolutely true. Even the school tells the students they “are there because we all scored poorly on the LSAT,” and will most likely only find employment as an ADA for $30-$40K a year.

            The school merely changed it’s name-that’s all. It retained the same mediocre staff from SNESL. This is akin to a restaurant changing it’s name but keeping the same cooks, staff, and managers. The problem remains while the name is new. This solves nothing!

            The school’s former Dean was fired after using the school’s credit card for vacations and other personal uses. So much for ethics! The level of academic instruction there is a joke. Many of the adjunct professor’s are clueless and don’t know the law they are paid to teach. Instead of providing a well thought out answer to a student’s question or inquiry, they instead answer your question with a question.

            Exam results are given as a mark. You never get your exam back to review your mistakes. If you want to review your exam results you must make an appointment and then sit in front of the professor in his/her office as they read the question and your answer. How does this help the student avoid making the same mistake again? It’s a rhetorical question-it doesn’t!

            If you are of color or are of the GLBTQ group, you can fail mid-terms and finals and still maintain status OFF academic probation. Oh, ya. if you fall into either of these two categories, you also get scholarships. But the white kids don’t !

            If you claim you are American Indian, you must prove it. If you claim to be gay or lesbian or transgender questioning (which means you have no ide what you are) you not only DON’T have to prove it, but you also get scholarships and first pick of judicial internships…Nice huh? No predjuce there!!

            The school prides itself on diversity and equality among all students as student lawyers. Then the school allows for a fracturing of this philosophy by allowing and encouraging groups such as BLSA (Black law student association) or ILSA (International Latino Law Student Association), or the WLSA(Women Law Student Association). Here’s a novel idea-how about just a UMass law student association?

            Of those UMass law grads who took the Febuaury 2012 bar exam, ZERO passed. That’s proof enough of the school’s basic failure to provide a quality legal education.

          • BoredJD

            Exactly. If there was more funding available for Legal Aid and more pro bono clinics, law students would take those jobs because they offer government 10-year Public Service Loan Forgiveness which is a really good deal. The problem is that there are so few of those jobs that they are ultra competitive.

            Unfortunately the law of “supply and demand” really doesn’t apply to the legal market. There are more JDs than ever, but prices aren’t going down and access isn’t increasing.

          • Ray

            I’m not so sure that UMass’s initiative is a good idea.  It is of course a good idea to lower the cost of law school, but there are already five law schools in the Boston area.  With graduates of Harvard Law School having trouble finding jobs does Boston really need another law school?  While UMass may offer a more affordable option, students at UMass may find it more difficult to find jobs as alumni connections and the school’s reputation can be two of the biggest factors in securing post graduate employment.

  • Mary

    Teach them how to negotiate.  You have no idea how many lawyers graduate from Law school, not knowing that basic part of the law, and frankly i got tired of teaching them.

  • Guest

    It’s not about being disappointed that as a law graduate, you’re not making a six-figure salary. 

    It’s that there are no law jobs PERIOD for graduates, even if you planned on making a modest middle-class salary doing public service work. 

    Now we’re stuck with six-figure debt that we will never be able to pay off by working in the only jobs that are available — at a restaurant or in a retail setting.  This debt will follow graduates for their entire lives, will ruin their credit rating, and can never be forgiven in bankruptcy. 

    Collectively, this massive amount of student loan debt between law graduates and other graduates is going to have serious consequences for the country for decades.

  • Tiptop

    The reason the average person can’t get an affordable lawyer is because of people like Vincent Rougeau who charge $125,454 to earn a law degree, not including the cost of living for those three years, cost of transportation, food, and books.  This also doesn’t account for the cost of a college degree, a prerequisite to obtaining a law degree. 

  • http://twitter.com/LawSchoolNobody CLSN Team

    $250,000 a year to be a law professor?? SMH!

  • BoredJD

    The simple fact is that about 100 law schools need to close. Class sizes need to be capped at 250 tops (in Canada, where there is not an oversupply of JDs, there are the same number of law schools per capita, but it is very rare to see a school with a class size of over 200. Here in the US schools like Harvard and Georgetown, and at the bottom of the rankings Cooley and Thomas Jefferson, have class sizes over 500.) Schools that cannot send more than 75% of their class into legal employment that can justify 200K in loans need to have their tuition capped at around 10-20K per year depending on market/location. How the school makes up this difference, cutting professor salaries and benefits, higher class loads, fewer administrative personnel, fewer merit scholarships to game the rankings, is their problem.

  • Ray

     I think the caller from Northeastern Law School failed to address the main point of this discussion.  While Northeastern’s model is great, it does nothing to bring down tuition costs.  Northeastern is actually more expensive to attend once you factor in cost of living than Boston College.  This surprised me for a school that has a reputation for focusing on public interest law.

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