We’re awash in lawyers. There are roughly 40 of them for every 10,000 people in the United States. Connecticut ranks third among the states with about 58 per 10,000 people. Only New York and Massachusetts have a greater concentration. The District of Columbia, not a state, but a universe unto itself, outstrips the pack with 811 lawyers per 10,000 people.
All these lawyers, and still poor people and the middle class can’t afford legal services. Connecticut Chief Justice Chase Roberts regularly calls upon members of the bar to offer up their time to do pro bono work. The courts are chock full of litigants without lawyers, clogging an already inefficient system.
Then why are big firms laying people off? Day, Pitney, a megafirm with offices in Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, Greenwich and West Hartford — not to mention Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. — recently laid off 40 staff members, including 10 lawyers. How can there be a demand for lawyers while law firms lay them off?
It’s matter of dollars and cents.
And that’s where the education of lawyers plays a role.
Law schools are a profit center for the universities that have them. All it takes are books, coffee and a large room to educate a lawyer. That and law professors. Charge each student $23,244 per year, the in-state tuition for a seat at the University of Connecticut law school, or, if the student is from out of state, charge $48,000, and make them read, write and argue for three years. Pack them tight into a lecture hall, and watch the profits grow. Factor in the cost of doing such things as eating, sleeping in something other than an abandoned car, and other necessities, and costs quickly mount to $45,000 per year for an in-state student. (A year at Yale will set you back about $75,000, with $52,000 of that for tuition. Quinnipiac University law school, the other private legal factory in the state, charges $46,000 a year in tuition, and estimates a year will cost about $67,000.)
But can law students afford this tuition?
No. So they are offered student loans. Almost everyone gets them. I’ve hired young lawyers with student loan debt the size of what it would take to purchase a home in most parts of the country. Is it any wonder debt-strapped law students want to do the mind-numbing drudgery big firms bill their clients big dollars to perform? A newbie lawyer can make well into six figures while still learning how to set the combination lock on the new briefcase grandma bought them as a graduation present.
But guess what? The economy still stinks. Ask the folks who’ve lost the heart to look for work because they’re over 50 and no one wants them. These folks need lawyers. But they can’t pay Day, Pitney rates. Many can pay nothing at all.
Big firms cut loose expensive lawyers. These lawyers join the ranks of the small firms, hustling up legal fees wherever they can find them. Plenty of real estate lawyers have been trolling the criminal courts in recent years, offering cut-rate representation to those accused of felonies.
So President Obama’s proposal to cut legal education from three years to two makes economic sense. Graduate lawyers with less debt, and, perhaps, more young lawyers would be willing, and able, to help folks at life’s margins.
But what about pedagogy? Would lawyers be less well prepared to contend with life’s chaos?
There’s something wrong with how we educate lawyers. Students spend too much time in a classroom and not enough time on the street, in prisons, in hospitals, in social service clinics, and, even in, if you have the taste for this sort of nefarious thing, board rooms. You can no more learn how the law bends and responds to life’s crises in a classroom than you can learn surgery from a textbook.
But we create thousands of new legal theoreticians each year. They are belched out of the nation’s status factories — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and a few other institutions who pride themselves on training the next generation of judges — hoping to head to perches in big firms, government or clerkships in judicial chambers. The right clerkship, serving for a year or so as a researcher, ghostwriter and all-around factotum to a judge, is a prize much sought after by many young lawyers.
The ambitious among them hope for lightning to strike and to be appointed a federal judge, even a Supreme Court justice.
But consider who occupies the nine seats on the Supreme Court. Not one of them has ever stood next to a man or woman accused of a crime and held the government to its burden of proof. Only one has even tried a case, and that is Sonya Sotomayor, who was a federal prosecutor decades ago. All are graduates of Harvard, Yale or Columbia. Almost all spent a lifetime in academia, as judges on lesser courts, or working for big government and big law firms.
At the law’s pinnacle sit brilliant theoreticians, trained, groomed and bred to waltz in rarefied dance halls most folks never visit. If there is a crisis of legitimacy in the law, it may well spring from a heartfelt sense that the nation’s top courts are staffed by otherworldly creatures.
I say we close a law school or two and permit aspirants to the bar to train for the law the way Abraham Lincoln did — apprentice with a practitioner. Rather than acquiring a lifetime’s worth of debt fueling a diploma mill, and then graduating with nothing so much as the fervent desire never to rub elbows with actual people in need, train lawyers in law offices. Learn to read a contract by drafting one. Learn about real estate by observing a closing. Stand next to a man told that justice requires him to live for decades in a concrete box.
Then take the bar exam.
Practice conceived isn’t theory relieved. Teaching young men and women to think like lawyers in the zoo we call law school is succeeding only in producing lawyers who can’t afford to serve the people who need them. Then let’s pick judges from among those who have actually toiled in a courtroom.
We’ve too many of the wrong kind of lawyers. I say, let’s close a law school. Why not start with the University of Connecticut? It is, after all, the only law school in the state beholden to state taxpayers.