Many years ago when I was a practicing lawyer, my senior law partner made an observation I never forgot. Law graduates become the kind of attorney they will always be, he remarked, based on their first law job.
And based on my experience, my law partner's assessment is 100 percent accurate. Young people who graduate from law school and begin working for an ethical law firm are molded into ethical lawyers and remain ethical lawyers all their lives. Fledgling attorneys who join firms with sloppy ethics or an undue focus on making money become ethically sloppy themselves, and the slipshod ethical standards of their first employer shape their entire careers.
But of course attorneys' ethical values are being shaped even before they take their first law jobs. Law students first begin developing their ethical standards while in law school. In their classroom interactions and their examinations, they learn the value of honesty and fair dealing.
And if this is true, then it is important for law students to attend law schools that model the highest ethical standards. For if law students see their law schools make decisions based on greed and self-promotion, it seems likely that the students themselves will adopt similar attitudes about the legal profession.
And this brings me to an editorial in today's Sunday Times entitled "The Law School Debt Crisis." In 2012, the Times reported, the average law graduate accumulated $140,000 in debt; and yet newly minted attorneys are entering a job market in which 43 percent of them cannot find long-term, full time jobs in the legal field.
Simply put, the market for lawyers is flooded. Many sensible young people have analyzed their job prospects if they go to law school and have decided to choose other professions. In fact, as Steven J. Harper reported in a New Times op ed essay a few months ago, law-school enrollment has slipped from 52,000 in 2010 to 38,000 last year.
But the drop in law-school enrollments has not kept pace with the slump in demand for lawyers. Most law schools depend on tuition money for the vast majority of their income; they simply must attract students to maintain their revenue streams. Consequently, they have lowered admissions standards to keep heir enrollments up. In 2014, the Times pointed out, test scores on the common portion of the LSAT were the lowest they have been in 25 years.
In sum, this is the state of the legal field. Law schools all over the United States hiked their tuition in response to a change in federal law that allowed students to borrow the full amount of their graduate education. And law schools also admitted more students to boost revenues. When the market for lawyers crashed, law schools did not reduce their fees or cut their enrollments sufficiently. The result, to use the Times' language, is a "death spiral" in the legal job market with unemployed or under-employed attorneys carrying mountains of student-load debt that they can't pay off.
Ironically, the glut in lawyers is occurring at the same time distressed student-loan debtors are filing for bankruptcy without the aid of attorneys. When these overburdened student-loan borrowers file adversary proceedings to discharge their student loans through bankruptcy, they are opposed by loan collection companies that have plenty of high-paid legal talent.
How can this disaster be turned around? The Times recommends expanding the Obama administration's so-called gainful employment rules that tie an institution's eligibility for federal student-aid money to its success in preparing graduates for good jobs. Currently the rule only applies to for-profit law schools, but the Times urges the rule be amended to cover nonprofit law schools as well.
The Times also thinks a cap should be placed on the amount of federal student loans a student can obtain. A cap in federal loan money, the Times believes, would drive tuition down.
I support both these ideas, but I would go further. I would shut off federal student-aid money to all for-profit schools, including for-profit law schools, which charge extraordinarily high tuition and have lousy records for placing their graduates in good jobs that require law degrees.
For the American people, the stakes are high. Our society is based on the rule of law, and our law schools must produce graduates who are intelligent and have the highest ethical standards. But American law schools have set a poor ethical example for their students. They have bloated their student rolls and raised their tuition for the sole purpose of sucking up student-loan money and enhancing their revenues.
Our justice system will break down completely if our nation's lawyers adopt the ethical standards of the law schools they attended and begin thinking of their profession solely as a way to get rich.
Editorial. The Law School Debt Crisis. New York Times, October 25, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/25/opinion/sunday/the-law-school-debt-crisis.html
Steven J. Harper. Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs. New York Times, August 25, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/opinion/too-many-law-students-too-few-legal-jobs.html
Elizabeth Olsen. Burdened With Debt, Law School Graduates Struggle In Job Market. New York Times, April 26, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/27/business/dealbook/burdened-with-debt-law-school-graduates-struggle-in-job-market.html