Tuesday, March 07, 2006

What do law students want?

Our law school is participating in a survey of our students to determine what the students want and feel they are getting from the school. I will be interested to see what level of participation is achieved, and what the results are.

My own memories of law school, plus observiations and conversations, lead me to a few conclusions that will be interesting to test:

1) Students attend law school for a wide variety of reasons, not all having to do with interest in justice or desire to practice law;

2) Students who are serious about learning to be lawyers have very different priorities from less serious students, but all...

3) Students want to get through their school day as efficiently and pain-free as possible;

4) Students want to pass the bar on the first try (if they plan to take the bar);

5) Students want to get a well-paying, interesting and fulfilling job when they graduate (sometimes these 3 criteria are mutually exclusive, sad to say);

6) Students want to have a low or manageable debt-load (again, this may interfere with the job choice -- the pain-free part may lead them to choose to vacation in Hawaii between semesters, then the debt goes up, leading them to pass up the fulfilling job as prosecutor or public defender because the pay is too low to cover the crushing debt they incurred during law school) This last parenthetical, while true for some of our students, alas, mis-represents the truth, which is that the debt load is crushing even without trips to Hawaii. They take loans to cover their undergraduate education and come to law school already thousands of dolllars in debt. Then, they add more on that for our law school tuition. Bummer.

There is also the problem that the job market periodically dries up, and is especially tight in major urban areas. Our students tend to like to stay in Boston or at least the Massachusetts/New England area. Our legal market is not growing very strongly, with law firms merging left and right. So it takes a very strong student, with an engaging interview to get a placement of their dreams and still pay their debts.

There is the added problem that law firm life at some places may be less pleasant now than in past years. There seem to be a lot of pressures on young associates, and less chances to make partner. Even when folks make partner, it does not seem to be the clover-filled life it once was. Unless a student finds a boutique firm, or a very pleasant small firm, or sets off to found their own firm, life seems increasingly grim. There are government placements, but some of those pay well (federal jobs) and the competition is fierce. State jobs pay poorly and there competition is less fierce, but who can afford to pay their debts on the pay?

And yet, people are still coming to law school. It is an incredibly flexible degree. You can do many things with a J.D. besides traditional law practice. Management, all sorts of banking and business work are enhanced with that law degree. If you already have the library degree, there are few hotter job markets than law librarianship, but few students are willing to tack on another degree's worth of debt -- especially if you read my rants about pink collar pay! You have to advance pretty far into administration before you start making better money in law librarianship, or else specialize in computer or international/foreign law aspects.

The reality of law practice does not often measure up to the television series that may be luring students to our law schools. While you may wear spiffy clothes, you are not supposed to act out like the actors in L.A. Law and its more recent T.V. legal cousins. No sex in the stacks, no back-stabbing in the courtrooms. There is a lot more reading fine print and statutes and writing contracts and agreements. It's not a bad way to make a living, and you can do a lot of good in the world with a law degree. Some people do come hoping to make LAW = JUSTICE.

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