Did You Read the Two Messages
Two thought-provoking messages appeared in the Forum recently. In the first, Roger Willwerth, after mentioning his interest in pursuing a law degree, in spite of thinking he might sound "cheap and unorthodox", asked whether there are correspondence law courses. In the second, Vicki Pionek says "I was informed that Virginia, and a few other states have an apprenticeship program, as a way to be admitted to the bar. This means working for an attorney for 3-4 years, and then being sponsored by that attorney to take the bar exam. Does anyone out there know of such a program? I have a few friends interested in the legal profession who can't afford the high cost of tuition and student loans."
These are thought-provoking questions because they go straight to the issue of what law schools are for. They immediately raise further questions: What does the bar expect of a law school? What do future students expect? Who can afford the optimum education, if we could agree what that might be, and what is the best affordable legal education for those for whom the optimum is out of reach? How does one supplement a legal education, even in "the best of schools"? Finally, do all of the questions have any bearing on dissatisfaction within the profession?
We Know About the Rampant Dissatisfaction of Lawyers
Little needs to be said in this column about the rampant dissatisfaction among lawyers. That is the theme of this site with numerous articles and messages in the Forum. What has only been alluded to tangentially is the role of the traditional law schools in this continuing sad drama. For 100 years, the law schools have been ambivalent about their obligation to prepare students to practice their profession, referring to places such as medical schools as "trade schools". Much of this ambivalence has its roots in the rise of the university in the nineteenth century, and the effort to bring professional training under academic discipline. The intent was to raise the standard of training, but it is undeniable that there was also a desire to raise the prestige of legal training by the creation of graduate schools which would emphasize teaching "how to think like a lawyer."
What does one gain from legal education in a graduate school as opposed, say, to a correspondence course or an apprenticeship? The graduate schools have, after all, come in for their share of heavy criticism, to the point of questioning their adequacy. Our article, "Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places? Choosing the Best Law School" noted how important it is for those who want to practice law to be informed consumers of legal education. It referred extensively to the MacCrate Report and its conclusion that there is limited teaching by the traditional law schools of the fundamental values and skills needed by those planning to practice:
"If professional competence is the goal, the fact is troubling that so many young lawyers are seen as lacking the required skills and values at the time the lawyer assumes full responsibility for handling a client's legal affairs. Much remains to be done to improve the preparation of new lawyers for practice . . Relatively few law students have exposure to the full range of professional skills offerings. The Task Force found that the majority of graduating law students had four or fewer skills experiences (simulated skills, clinics, externships or others) while in law school."
Moreover, lawyers and law students have also complained about too little attention to the values of the legal profession, not enough familiarization with the wide range of options they have, and little incorporation into the traditional curriculum of the techniques and approaches needed to find or create positions consistent with personal and professional goals. Aside from the mandatory legal profession course, there are few courses on the economics and sociology of the profession itself.
In addition, some law schools charge an exorbitant amount for the services they provide during the years required to complete the required curriculum. (Students have been known to say that they learned all they needed to know in the first year and were bored for the next two, unless they left the school to participate in a clinical experience. They find it hard to find any significant support for having a third year of law school.) Staggering debt creates intense pressure on students to consider taking positions often contrary to their personal values and professional goals. Later, when they wish to find more satisfying work, they may find themselves demoralized by their law school experience, and unfamiliar with the skills and knowledge necessary to manage a satisfying career.
What is the Solution
In a previous article, I recommended the following as a means of avoiding the career dissatisfaction prevalent in law. Learn: 1) the fundamental values of the legal profession; 2) the fundamental skills; 3) the wide range of options and settings in which lawyers practice; 4) how to keep debt from dictating your career choice; and 5) how to plan your career and search for a satisfying position. The failure to learn one or more of these lessons has caused thousands of law students to be diverted from their hopes and dreams. Can the alternatives to traditional legal education accomplish this agenda?
Apprenticeship as A Vehicle for Learning How to Practice Law
What are apprenticeship programs? In a number of states, one need not attend a law school in order to be eligible to take the bar examination; i.e., Virginia, Maine, Colorado and Vermont. Each has its own set of requirements for taking the bar and becoming licensed to practice in the state.
The apprenticeship program has two potentially great advantages over the traditional law school. The first is its pragmatic emphasis on learning how to practice law. That benefit, of course, is dependent on how qualified and how willing the mentor is to guide and teach the apprentice. It is also limited to the skills of the particular context within which one finds an apprenticeship. The second is the cost of obtaining the degree. Even if the apprentice must volunteer his or her time, there is no need to pay tuition. Apprenticeships run into some problems, however, when it comes to learning fundamental values of the profession, and to learning about the range and diversity of practice options. Again, the particularity of the setting can be enlarging or limiting. One's access to a wide legal community, if only through vicarious knowledge, may be limited compared to what, ideally, is available in a law school.
The Virtual Law School as A Remedy for The High Cost of Law School
In connection with the question about correspondence schools, I recently read about the opening of Concord University, a for-profit joint venture of the Washington Post and Kaplan Educational Programs. As I understand it, this is a virtual law school accredited by the state of California. There will be no physical buildings or classrooms. Courses will be offered on-line and assignments and examinations will be transmitted electronically. At first glance, this approach offers only the advantage of reduced cost and retains the disadvantage of failing to teach how to practice law. However, with the incorporation of new advances which incorporate interactive video, it remains to be seen to what extent Concord and other such schools will attempt to overcome that barrier.
What If We Put the Two - Or Three of Them - Together?
The legal profession is at a crossroads. There are millions of our residents who need, but cannot get, access to legal services for personal and business matters. There are thousands of law students, lawyers and those considering law school who would like to use their legal training to help the average individual or small business. If the present legal education system costs too much, teaches too little and diverts too many from satisfying careers, one might think that the solution is a combination of the two radical approaches. Apprenticing lawyers a few years from now will take courses over the internet which will teach them to "think like a lawyer." At the same time, they will learn how to practice law by working as an apprentice. At no time will they ever set foot in a traditional classroom.
And yet, are we ready to discard the ideal of a community united in its pursuit of learning a noble profession, exploring and sharing the discovery of skills, values and goals of legal practice? Is the traditional law school incapable of incorporating some of the innovations just described? After all, schools exist with cooperative programs that function as a succession of apprenticeships. Some schools not only have healthy clinical programs, but have been willing to require a measure of public interest, pro-bono experiences. Internet technology has been eagerly taken up by some forward-looking professors, bringing intimacy and dialogue to large courses, while raising the possibility of economies in instruction. Schools like the Massachusetts School of Law have attempted to reduce the cost of legal education so that entrance to the legal profession will be more open and so that debt will not be as much of a factor in career choice. Is it not possible that the challenge to the traditional schools might result in a real continuum of options in legal education, each suited to the temperament and pocket book of prospective lawyers, but all incorporating the fundamental learning necessary to pursue a meaningful and self-directed career in the law?
In the Meantime
At present, before there is a beguiling selection of legal educations, the responsibility remains with the individual to augment his or her training with independent study, research, reflection and dialogue. There is no legal education, not even the most privileged, which should be taken straight and uncritically. All legal education is continuous, and not merely through "continuing legal education." I hope that sites such as Findlaw, with its tremendous resources and its lively forum, are harbingers of new means of professional development within the legal community, from law school to retirement.
What do you think? Feel free to express your opinions in the Forum. Also, on Thursday evening, January 14, 1999, at 9:00pm the topic to be discussed in the FindLaw Chat will be "Alternatives to Law School for Those Who Want to be Lawyers"
Ronald W. Fox, Esquire