Night Time is the Right Time: Gaining Perspective from the Law School Experience
There isn’t one thing I’d change about law school. There are several thousand things. But, what I lack in focus, I make up for in . . . Wait a second, Where was I?
But, if I can’t offer one thing to change about law school, I can answer for some more limited number of things that could be done to change law schools for the better, as aggregated under a single theme.
When I was in law school (which was an irregular thing; I was in the building as infrequently as I could be), I found that I got along most well with the night students. In particular, I would talk to this medical doctor who was going back to get a JD. While I still don’t quite understand what level of masochism drove him to such an endeavor (but, perhaps it was the same thing that had him convinced to go to medical school in the first place), I found that he had gained a good perspective on life, in general, and that, even though I didn’t understand his motivations for being in law school, he had a clearer sense of the obligations of the undertaking, respecting the lifestyle, financial and intellectual challenges/changes required, among other things. I did not find a similar sensibility among my daytime classmates — myself included, in all honesty.
I remember thinking that law school would have been a better place, and lawyers better prepared for practice, if all of the folks who attended law school were more like Dr. Who (because you don’t know his name, and I don’t remember it).
But, is there a way to transport the ‘night student ethos’ to the whole of law school? Probably not. After all, you can’t force (a) perspective. Though, perhaps law schools could do a better job of helping students and potential students to become more focused on the real life after law school while they’re still in law school, to take a more practical longview, than they do now, based on some of the things that they do for and in school. And, of course, it’s not just one thing; it’s more likely a collection of things.
Here, then, is my catalogue of some of the things that I think law schools might try, separately or in combination, to give students/potential students, a clearer vision of what waits for them on the other side of their diploma:
- Basketball players have to wait one year (out of high school) before they can apply for the NBA Draft; and, some have suggested that the waiting period should be even longer than that. Law schools could adopt a similar waiting period for college graduate applicants. This method (mandating the ‘take a year off’ (or more) philosophy) would force potential students to really consider their purposes for attending law school, and whether it’s just a stopgap measure for them
- Law schools and their financial aid offices could work with prospective/incoming students to determine the students’ anticipated law school debt total. A document would be generated for the student outlining the debt total, anticipated payoff date and monthly payment terms. To give the potential/incoming student a view to what payments would be like ‘on the outside’, the student would be asked to pay into an escrow account a certain percentage of the post-graduate monthly payment amount each month of their enrollment in school. This would serve to give the student a sliver of an idea of what a monthly payment on a large-scale debt will look like. A practical effect is that the student could use the escrow funds (plus the interest accrued) to reduce the amount of the loan by that amount upon graduation
- Law schools can begin to require internship credits, like Northeastern University does for undergraduates. An extra year added to the law school curriculum to accommodate a cooperative education program would be a more formal requirement. In the alternative, law schools could offer a practicum program, like the University of New Hampshire School of Law does, potentially also including the carrot that successful graduates of the program will be admitted to practice without having to pass the state bar examination.
- Law school programs could be extended to four years from three, which would allow for a reduction of semester classes, and would open up more work opportunities for students. This would have the dual effect of allowing the students to gain practical experience, and to earn more money, to pay for some of their tuition while in school, thereby reducing their potential post-school debt load.
The extension of time for the curriculum would also allow law schools to do a couple more things:
- First, students would have more time to engage in outside activities, like having jobs, which could mean that the antiquated 20 hour/week working limitation for full-time law students might finally be lifted
- Second, more non-substantive classes could be added to the law school curriculum. Admittedly, I’m biased here; but, I also have a unique perspective on this issue: Since law school graduates are not prepared to enter the practice as business persons, classes could be added covering law practice management, marketing and technology topics, among others. Neither would these courses need to be taught by lawyers, unless an ethics perspective is sought/required, or if a lawyer’s perspective is otherwise strongly desired. There is absolutely no reason, for example, why a seasoned IT person, who has worked with law firms, cannot teach a law school class on technology for lawyers. That hypothetical person would have far more current expertise in the subject matter than most practicing lawyers would.
- Most law students have no real idea of the cost of legal research, or of alternatives to the two major players in the field, because they receive Lexis and Westlaw access for free for their entire law school careers. Law schools could submit monthly invoices to students respecting the cost of their use of legal research tools. If the school wishes the students to pay a small portion of the bill, that money could be put toward tuition, or added to an escrow account (as discussed above) for reducing debt load upon graduation.
. . .
Law schools are producing lawyers who are ill-prepared to practice in the modern legal economy; and, most law students have little to no clue of that fact. There has been much discussion of law schools offering students a truer sense of their job prospects post-graduation; but, the broader educational component should not be abandoned thereafter: Law schools should work hard to discover ways to provide both students and potential students with a better idea of what life after law school will really be like, via more practical education modules offered during attendance and prior to enrollment.