The New York Times must feel badly about continually bashing law schools, for it allowed a local sewer to infest its op-ed page, yesterday. Rutgers-Newark Dean John Farmer published To Practice Law, Apprentice First. Though chock full of ivory tower disconnect, at least he didn't try to sell law school as a sound investment like most of his peers.
Let me get this out of the way: As a New Jersey taxpayer, I believe both Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden should close and the public resources currently expended be diverted to more productive use. I would have had a less visceral reaction if this op-ed issued from Hofstra, but I'm sure less geographically-challenged writers will remain more objective. Actually, I look forward to Campos ripping Farmer a new asshole from Colorado. This link has everything you need to know about lawyer supply and demand in the NJ legal market. Class dismissed.
Farmer has had a charmed life, unlike most Rutgers-Newark alumni. His bio is here. To his credit, he has considerable experience in private practice, so he is not just talking from you-know-where. I also know him as one of the "go-to" guys when the fit hits the shan. On the other hand, he is dean of a perpetual also-ran in the nation's biggest legal market and should tend to his own house rather than venture out to pontificate. After all, rankings come out next month.
The op-ed isn't that long; please read it. Farmer ties the legal market's woes to big firms overpaying for newbie lawyers. Briefly, because Cravath pays $160K, Dorita can't afford to fight her eviction. Further, because Cravath's clients aren't willing to pay to train new lawyers, Cravath hires fewer of them (and the remainder compete with Rutgers-Newark grads).
Farmer's prescription is the lawyer's version of a medical residency. I could write an essay on the difference between law and medicine, starting with one being an actual, well-respected profession and the other being a presTTTigious "profession" and textbook case of regulatory capture. Side note: medical students now face the "jaws of death." Oh, and the public pays to train new doctors, presumably because the investment is worth it. Can you say the same about lawyers? And keep a straight face?
I'm getting lazy, so let me respond to Farmer with some bullet points.
- The reason the middle-class can't afford lawyers is because it has no money. Fix that and some other intractable problems will fix themselves. Education debt, anyone? How about reducing housing prices in the NYC area? A more progressive tax structure coupled with federal, state, and local government pruning?
- Good lawyers are expensive because they are worth it; you get what you pay for. This is the case with everything in life. Farmer implicitly recognizes that low-end legal work can and should be done cheaply, meaning the value isn't there. Big firms realized this years ago, at which point they began hiring staff attorneys; shipping work to India and flyover country; and, employing automation. The problem remains that the academy wants seven years of higher education, a bar exam, bar dues, and CLEs for the chance to do scut work. Farmer's answer to this is to add two years low-paid residency under questionable supervision.
- One way to reduce the cost of legal education, but not legal services, is to make law an undergraduate degree, either four or five years. THEN, you require one or two years working for an admitted lawyer. This is how accountants regulate themselves and we don't hear about a glut of CPAs, though a lot of this is self-selection. Again, it won't reduce prices because the cost of training does not affect the perceived value of the service rendered. This is why my accountant charges a high hourly rate for estate accounting and estate tax preparation and the lawyer who does my estate planning works for a flat fee somewhat higher than LegalZoom's.
- Did I forget to mention the middle-class has no money?
Anyhow, nice try, Dean Farmer. You clearly understand both structural changes facing the legal industry and macroeconomics. If I may quote Upton Sinclair, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"