Troubled Times in Legal Education

Posted on April 23, 2012 by Irma S. Russell

The topic I have chosen for this blog may be a surprise to some.  It is not about a late-breaking environmental case--though we have had a couple in Montana recently.  It does not analyze a new regulation or explain a newly-discovered risk of industry practice.  It is not about the new federal guidance (such as the National Forest System Land Management Plan).  Rather, my focus is on the recent challenges in legal education.  While this topic is not substantively environmental, it will have an impact on the practice of environmental law in the not-too-distant future.

Just as we need a rational energy policy, we need a system of legal education that serves the public good.  We need to study seriously our nation’s policies on supporting and delivering legal education.  The importance of rule of law and lawyers to our democracy can hardly be overstated.  Public support for education in general and legal education in particular has declined over the last two decades to the point that people who want to make law their life’s work are facing an uphill battle and society is facing a situation in which no one except the wealthy can afford legal representation.

The challenges facing legal education today have been the subject of numerous recent articles.  Rising debt burdens law school graduates as they search for jobs in a tight market.  In January, the ABA Journal reported that America's law students borrowed at least $3.7 billion in 2010.  In [that same year], 85 percent of law graduates from ABA-accredited schools had an average debt load of $98,500, according to data collected from law schools by U.S. News & World Report.  At 29 schools, that amount exceeded $120,000.  In contrast, only 68 percent of those grads reported employment in positions that require a JD nine months after graduation.  Less than 51 percent found employment in private law firms.  The influx of so many law school graduates--44,258 in 2010 alone, according to the ABA--into a declining job market has created serious repercussions.   

In addition to facing high debt loads and fewer job opportunities, law graduates are confronted by criticism that law school is too theoretical and does not fully prepare graduates for practice.  Jeffrey W. Carr, the general counsel of FMC Technologies, stated in a New York Times article, “The fundamental issue is that law schools are producing people who are not capable of being counselors.  They are lawyers in the sense that they have law degrees, but they aren’t ready to be a provider of services.”  Over the last two decades, schools have added offerings in clinics, externships, and simulations to introduce more experiential learning into their curriculum.  Today, the vast majority of the nation's 200 law schools provide students with some kind of clinical training.  Nevertheless, there is no denying that new law graduates continue to need on-the-job training and mentoring by employers and colleagues before they are ready to fully embrace all aspects of the practice.

The American College of Environmental Lawyers (ACOEL) has been looking for innovative ways to fulfill its service mission to the profession.  The ideas include working with law faculty to survey the skills and knowledge new lawyers need to succeed in our profession and to make recommendations for changes in law schools.  I agree whole-heartedly with this and other innovative suggestions for developing our service and improving the profession, but I want to suggest an additional (old) avenue for this service: mentoring.

Mentoring is important for many reasons, and it serves as a way of bridging the gap in knowledge between the theory and practice in the law.  Mentoring is also an opportunity for lawyers to help others gain insight and judgment.  ACOEL members and other environmental practitioners have numerous opportunities to assist students and young lawyers.  Now, more than ever, there is a need for passionate, competent lawyers in environmental law and related fields, and these new lawyers will need mentors.  They will need mentors to be able to serve their clients and also to achieve the sense of serving the public good – one of the principal reasons students enrolled in law school in the first place. 

Practitioners can contribute in a variety of ways.  If you see a lack of mentoring in today's legal profession and want to contribute to this need, I hope you will reach out to a law school near you and offer to help mentor students and newly licensed lawyers.  I also hope you will consider supporting your own law school or others--particularly those that focus on environmental law--to help ensure the next generation of lawyers has the tools and opportunities to flourish in the practice of environmental law and to serve the public in this crucial field.

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