Recently, Bloomberg Law posted a video interview with New York Times reporter David Segal on YouTube. Mr. Segal is the reporter who has written several articles over the last year highly critical of legal education generally, and law school economics in particular. If you would like to read those articles, you may find them here, here, here, and here.
In the video interview, Mr. Segal explains how he came to be interested in the subject of legal education, alleges that the "business of law school is crazy," and refers to the "madness" of the overly influential and "pathological" U.S. News rankings. He calls the "prestige race" sparked by U.S. News "incredibly destructive."
Concerning the tension between rising student debt and the history of some law schools to not reveal accurate employment information, Mr. Segal argues in favor of law schools "patronizing" potential students to provide that information and let them know how tough it is to make a living as a lawyer. He also argues in favor of a range of law schools producing different "levels" of lawyers, from those qualified to handle small matters to those qualified to handle bigger ones, suggesting that this would benefit consumers. He charges that the ABA has a conflict of interest in being the regulating body for legal education, since lawyers have an interest in their being fewer lawyers on the market, and want to keep wages high. Near the end of the interview, Mr. Segal strikes a discouraging note when he predicts that the extent of reform that the ABA or Congress is likely to force will be limited to better reporting of employment data and similar information.
Here is the video (14 minutes):
From my point of view, in his articles in the Times and in this video, Mr. Segal has put a spotlight on problems in legal education at the top (schools that mostly disfavor teaching lawyering skills) and at the bottom (schools that charge a lot and may be playing fast and loose with employment data). But he misses the good middle almost entirely.
There are many law schools today that are working hard (and harder every day) to train their graduates better for a wider range of law practice. One way of looking at the concern about a lack of "small matter" lawyers is that too many law schools are not producing graduates who are ready to practice when they leave, some of whom might "hang out a shingle" competently, and develop a small matter practice and make a decent living doing so (and be able to pay off their educational debt).
I suppose the sexier, headline grabbing, front page "above the fold" articles are the ones Mr. Segal wants to write. But there is another very encouraging story that he is missing, and by not paying attention to it, he is not providing the full picture of legal education today. There are many encouraging signs. For a start, he might want to look at the Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. A consortium of law schools - across the spectrum - are working hard to improve legal education. My own course portfolio - for the Discovery Practicum course - was one of the first ones posted, but I am hardly alone; more and more law professors are changing how they teach law, in part by making it more practice focused.
These efforts are about producing better value for the cost of legal education. We may not be able to reduce the cost, but we can teach better, and prepare our students for a variety of practice settings. As I argue in the Law School 2.0 book, leveraging technology will play an increasingly important role in providing better value for the cost. This was also the subject of my talk at New York Law School as part of the Future Ed 3 Conference last April.
Personally, Mr. Segal's attack on law schools for not teaching practical skills was the toughest for me to take. He may be right, at least at the highest ranked schools, and the rest of us are not paragons of virtue on this either. We could all do more. But to suggest that law schools do not teach real lawyering skills was hard to swallow. I have taught a course doing just that for over 20 years, and have written extensively about how to do this. After teaching as an adjunct for many years, I left a healthy 20 year practice to teach full time at the University of Denver so I could do more of this kind of teaching. A former student in the Discovery course wrote an article in the February issue of the Denver Bar Asssociation's montly publication about how it helped her to be ready for practice. A more eloquent rebuke to Mr. Segal's article could not be imagined - at least not by me.
Yes, that is just one course. But there are many like it. And even more broadly, the University of Denver has required a course of all first year students called Lawyering Process, and I have taught in that program for 15 years (as an adjunct for six years, and full-time faculty for 9). I have been Director of that program for the last 4 years. My colleagues (9 full-time faculty members) believe very strongly in what we do - teaching lawyering skills to first year students - and many of us have dedicated our careers to doing this. And we are not alone! Lawyering skills teachers abound in nearly every law school across the country. Are there issues about how we are perceived and valued in the academy? Sure. But we teach these skills day in, day out. Hundreds of us. The complete picture is much better, and more encouraging, than Mr. Segal acknowledges, and that story would benefit from his spotlight. There's something to write about.