Law students are increasingly frustrated with the utility of legal education during a difficult economic market. As Cooley law school graduates realized recently, their lack of foresight over job prospects may not be compensable by law.
But still law students and prospective law student are still trying to figure out what the purpose of law school is supposed to be. Law schools insist that the philosophical underpinnings of law are an essential background for entering practice, arguably one of the several distinguishing characteristics from paralegals or other professionals working in the legal field.
Michael Plaxton discusses this question in a piece this week in The Star where he states,
Today, we are less likely to hear criticisms that law schools are not academic enough, but that academic priorities have squeezed out practical concerns. Lawyers, students, (some) professors and members of the public have all expressed concerns that law schools do not adequately prepare students for the bar, and so fail to protect the public interest. Last year, the Federation of Law Societies released its own report suggesting a list of “core competencies” that law schools must confer upon students prior to graduation. A school that failed to do so could be stripped of its accreditation — a sentence akin to the death penalty. This reinforces the image of the law school as a place for vocational learning, and not sophisticated academic reflection on the law.
There are other implications for practice to be considered. If the high cost of legal services can in part be attributable to the training that articling students and young lawyers spend on files, as some suggest, then the lack of vocational focus is also an access to justice issue.
It’s not like there aren’t other alternatives. Legal history and philosophy can still be explored at the graduate level in law schools, and as Plaxton notes, legal academia functions on a very different level than in other fields. I don’t discount the importance of these in the development of law, especially in litigation and in the public policy considerations that inform statutes. But it doesn’t have to be the main focus of legal education in an era when most firms are also struggling to financially justify employing more law students.
Law schools can and should play a larger role than just vocational training. As I mentioned here earlier, the legal field still lags well behind other professions on most indicators of diversity, and most of these challenges begin before the lawyers arrive at the firms. The legal field is a profession precisely because we directly inform issues of justice and equality in society, which requires the educational institutions themselves to inform these goals.
Access to justice and social justice do inform the agendas of most law schools, and some even attempt to brand themselves as leaders in this area. But law school demographics simply do not reflect the diversity and socio-economic backgrounds of Canadian society, meaning our advocates and judiciary are largely inexperienced in the challenges that members of the public regularly encounter. This can only occur if law school tuition is affordable.
The most common mechanism employed by law schools to lower tuition are scholarships. However, almost all of these in Canada are merit-based, not based on need.
Chris Goodman notes generally in the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice journal that an emphasis on merit based scholarships invariably shifts these resources to more affluent white students from more economically challenged and minority students, who may have other responsibilities and even work part-time during law school. Brian Tamanaha confirms in Failing Law Schools that those in greatest financial need actually end up subsidizing the education and careers of the best well off law students, given the exponentially better job prospects awaiting the latter, irrespective of actual law school performance.
Jerome Organ suggests in the Journal of Legal Education that the main reasons for the shift towards merit-based scholarships are a concern over rankings influenced by GPA/LSAT, and concern over attrition of students to other law schools after the first year. Given that Canada’s 18 common-law law schools are all considered roughly equivalent, we have the unique ability to operate outside of a paranoid concern over a 4-tier system and directly address the concerns of equity and access to the legal system through education.
However, it’s more than just money. Law schools can themselves be an outright hostile environment for some minority students, given that the composition is largely comprised of individuals who have themselves had limited experience and interaction with other cultures or socio-economic groups.
A study recently presented at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association found that social satisfaction of students was largely correlated to binge drinking. This satisfaction was enjoyed most by what the study calls “higher status groups” (i.e., wealthy, male, white, heterosexual, and Greek affiliated undergraduates). Some “lower status group” members (i.e., less wealthy; female; non-white; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ); and non-Greek affiliated undergraduates) were able to improve their social satisfaction by joining in on the binge drinking. The exception to this was LGBTQ and minority students, who face discrimination and a sense of belonging that diminishes their ability to ameliorate their lowly status.
Why copious amounts of alcohol would even be proposed as a means to ameliorate social differences in law schools when alcoholism is a persistent problem among lawyers is beyond me. I still have law students telling me that their student bodies lack the creativity or imagination – and frankly the leadership and management skills – to think beyond alcohol-themed events to foster an inclusive social environment.
The challenges faced by law schools are therefore even broader than what Plaxton proposes. The financial model, and justification for return on tuition investment in a challenging job market, is just a starting point.
Our law schools continue to fail to recruit the type of minds informed with appropriate experience who will make the important decisions of the future, in law firms, government, and on the bench. Prioritizing the “profession” in the “legal profession” means an explicit recognition that our law schools are intended to have a transformative effect on society. And that’s a goal that can only be achieved if it’s backed by money.