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Pro Bono Net

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To Practice Law, Apprentice First

Monday, February 25, 2013

THE American Bar Association, which sets the standards for accrediting law schools, met recently in Dallas at a time of existential crisis for legal education. The job market for law school graduates is collapsing; some schools have been misleading, or even fraudulent, in reporting admissions and employment data; tuition and student debt have reached record levels. Some question legal education itself: What is its mission? What value does it add?

Those are legitimate questions. But to answer them for legal education, we also need to ask them of the profession.

Consider this: Nearly half of those who graduated from law school in 2011 did not quickly find full-time, long-term work as lawyers. Yet the need for legal representation has never been greater. In New Jersey, where I teach law, 99 percent of the 172,000 defendants in landlord-tenant disputes last year lacked legal counsel.

Nationwide, judges decry not a surplus of lawyers, but a lack of competent representation for those who aren’t rich individuals and corporations.

Lawyers cost too much in part because of rates established during the economic bubbles of the past 15 years. No less than in the dot-com or real-estate or derivatives markets, the cost of legal services became unsustainable. The recession worsened, but did not cause, the predicament now: a mountain of student debt and dearth of legal jobs, even as there is a crying need for legal services.

Legal education has not so much failed the profession as mirrored it. Law schools have trained students for a profession that has left a huge part of the public unable to afford representation — especially the middle class — and at a cost that perpetuates the problem.

There is a way out. Law schools and the legal profession could restore a vibrant job market by making representation easier to obtain. In doing so, they would revive their historic commitment to the balance between acquiring wealth and promoting civic virtue.

The New York State courts took a step in that direction recently by requiring pro bono service as a condition for admission to the bar. That is laudable, but many law schools already encourage or require pro bono service. That proposal doesn’t address the deeper problem: the disconnect between cost and need.

 

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