Value of a Legal Education
Dean Frank Wu
by Frank H. Wu, UC Hastings Chancellor & Dean
The other night over dinner, a colleague told me that his brother-in-law was still looking for a job — and so were all his brother-in-law's pals. As it happens, this unemployed relative along with his friends had all recently graduated from architecture school, and they had no choice except to hang out. I listened to this anecdote with interest, not only because when I was young I always wanted to become an architect, but also due to the seemingly daily exposés doubting the value of legal education.
I remain convinced that a Juris Doctor degree is an advisable investment. I'd like to explain why. I know, of course, that as a law school dean I have an interest in the matter, yet I have the role that I do because I believe in the professional training we offer and not vice versa.
Almost exactly 20 years passed from the time I stepped foot in San Francisco to interview with one of the major firms for a summer associate position and the moment I returned to head Hastings, the first law school of the University of California system. I practiced here for a couple of years. When I came back, I was astonished to see that fewer than half of what are now called "big law" firms were still around. Many had merged, some vanished, a few continued. Even the firms that ceased to exist enjoyed fine reputations for their lawyering up to the very end. They just hadn't made the best bets on real estate, lateral partners, branch offices or trends affecting their revenue.
A profound structural transformation has occurred within the bar. The economic crisis has worsened the situation. But the trends likely are permanent rather than temporary. They reflect increased competition among service providers as well as the dynamic nature of the economy in general. Hence, anyone who has followed the news is aware that both the blogosphere and the mainstream media have promoted with enthusiasm the notion that law degrees are more or less worthless, and legal educators are scarcely better than con artists. These claims are as angry as they are anonymous. They nonetheless deserve consideration.
Consider again the recent alumnus of architecture school. If we were to take a strict cost-benefit analysis of the M.Arch degree, it isn't altogether clear that an aspiring Frank Lloyd Wright ought to pursue it notwithstanding his desire to sketch another Fallingwater. The same would be true of a culinary certificate, fashion bachelor's, social work master's, journalism diploma or even a doctorate in any number of specialized academic disciplines.
Ignore for a moment the important issue of whether a utilitarian calculus accurately measures the purpose of education. At least arguably, it must be considered, given the price of tuition and the burden of student loans.
More to the point, however, what is remarkable is the difference between the feelings about architecture as an example on the one hand and law on the other hand. Diatribes about the study of design attract no attention, other than among those aficionados who may dispute whether journalist Tom Wolfe was right about modernism or visionary Robert Venturi about post-modernism.
Architecture school isn't much of a bargain either. Three years of law school and three years of architecture school are comparable. Despite that, like a range of other fields and unlike law, architecture has attracted no denunciation from its own professional association. I wonder, then, what it is that prompts the hostility toward the 200 or so accredited law schools. Some of the feeling may be similar to the sentiment of a lawyer joke. Lay people often come into contact with the law through disputes or as they are trying to come to agreement, which as expected, does not enamor them even to the individuals trained to give them advice and counsel. The clients pay for the lawyer, however good they are, and may see us as a transaction cost if not a nuisance.
That may excuse the emotions of a public that does not understand how crucial law is to their lives. It does not address, however, the seeming hatred of persons, who have been given the power to appear in a court of law as a representative who seeks to advance a cause, toward their own profession.
It has probably much to do with expectations. At any moment, a TV viewer is able to channel-surf among a dozen television programs depicting the attorney at law as glamorous, witty and well-paid. Indeed, a law school alumnus can be dated by the shows that initially captivated him: if it was the defining "L.A. Law," the would-be Clarence Darrow came of age in the late 1980s; if it was "Ally McBeal," then the 1990s; "Boston Legal," the 2000s; and so on.
Except for that rare airing of "The Fountainhead," the 1949 movie based on the Ayn Rand novel, starring Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, it would be difficult to find a single depiction of the architect as the hero. As a consequence, dreamers enroll in architecture school out of the desire to build a new world. They do not imagine that a life at the drafting table will be lucrative, or that blueprints for others will pay their own mortgages.
The truth is when I arrived in this city just before a mild recession, only a minority of students from a minority of campuses were even considered for openings at Financial District establishments. Then as now, most lawyers were solo practitioners, with firms of modest size, or in public service. These were perceived as honorable means to make a living. The fanciest jobs with the highest salaries were not available to the average student at the average school. And those who started in such associate positions historically have been highly unlikely to persist more than a few years before leaving for other opportunities albeit at lower levels of compensation.
Law, as a business, has changed so much merely in the generation I have witnessed. People whose parents would have been powerless within the justice system, owing to discrimination, now are recruited for their cultural competence. Former engineers and scientists who might have regarded themselves as implausible advocates and counselors, and who could even have faced bias in the admissions process, are sought after for their blend of technical background and legal abilities.
There remains a tremendous demand for legal services. Even as we lament the loss of jobs at firms of more than a thousand lawyers, there are still underserved communities lacking access. Developing economies yearn to adapt, and we urge upon them the Anglo-American precedent-based system of justice, and they find they need the lawyers to work within it. Thus, declaring legal education to be a mistake is akin to doubting the rule of law itself. Legal education should be reformed.
The curriculum of law school has great potential. In my view, the best legal education is practical, without a false dichotomy between what is practical and what is intellectual. It is global, applicable universally without regard for local limitations. It emphasizes problem solving and leadership, using law as an integral part of a set of techniques.
In some countries, talented students chose design as a major because they see it will prepare them well regardless of their eventual occupation. Here, law has been a default for many who were not quite ready for a specific career. It is up to us, who are privileged to teach, to show those who wish to learn exactly how what we impart will improve lives. We should explain that law school should be a deliberate choice and not a fallback.
Make no mistake. I am not defending cheating by administrators for the purpose of rankings, expensive bureaucracies in universities, or degrees that are priced beyond what the average family can reasonably afford.
No, I only want to make our choices clear. If we desire a school with the best academic reputation, there are rivals in the marketplace for talent just the same as for lawyers in private practice; they will bid up the compensation levels. If we want comprehensive systems for tracking statistics to report to prospective matriculants, an office has to be created to compile the numbers. If we deliberately eliminate the public funding that built terrific institutions to the envy of the world, then budgets need to be balanced by other means.
In the end, law is inherently a public good instead of a private good. Higher education, too, is a public good. It is good for all of us, not just those of us who are acquiring it directly. The success of California is the story of human capital.
Legal education is even more of a public good. Whether it is our civil rights, civic responsibilities, or our contractual agreements, everything else in society is made possible by the rule of law. In turn, law depends on lawyers. Those lawyers are produced by law schools.
My message is this: It is up to us to create a new paradigm for legal education.
Frank H. Wu is dean and chancellor of UC Hastings College of the Law.
Reprinted with permission from the September 7, 2011 edition of The Recorder. © Copyright 2011. ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, call 415.490.1054 or firstname.lastname@example.org