Monday, February 18, 2013

A post-law school residency requirement?

John Farmer, dean of the law school at Rutgers-Newark and a distinguished practitioner, proposes in the New York Times a requirement that law-school graduates apprentice for two years in a sort of residency program like that required of medical grads.

While there are many details to be worked out -- chief among them the far greater number of law graduates than medical graduates -- I like the basic substance of Farmer's proposal.  It would at least begin to redress two huge structural problems in the existing legal market.

The first problem is the mismatch between demand (lots of demand for low-cost legal services; not so much for high-cost ones) and supply (lots of law grads with enormous debt; not enough high-paying jobs available to help them pay it off).  Requiring a two-year legal residency after law school, while suspending debt payment for that period, would allow recent grads to meet a wide variety of legal needs at relatively low cost, thus fulfilling much currently unmet demand.  And while it wouldn't make graduates' debts go away, it would at least make recent grads more marketable, by giving them the kind of experience paying employers are looking for.

Which leads to the second current problem:  Most legal clients, and thus many legal employers, are no longer willing to subsidize the training of newly-minted lawyers fresh from law school, and law schools are not particularly well suited to supply the hands-on training in diverse areas that clients and employers want.  A residency requirement would provide the practical training that employers won't and law schools can't.

I also like the proposal because of its source:  someone inside the legal academy who also seems likely to have credibility among practitioners.  (According to the brief bio following the Times op-ed, Dean Farmer was "a former attorney general of New Jersey and senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission" before accepting the Rutgers-Newark deanship.)  There is a danger that the current crises in legal practice and legal education will be "addressed" with simplistic panaceas (e.g., doing away with the third year of law school) and scapegoating (e.g., blaming law professors for everything).  Both tendencies are on display in this disappointingly sloppy and one-sided Times article from Feb. 10, which reports a series of complaints and tentative suggestions aired at an ABA task-force meeting in Dallas as if they were consensus recommendations of the ABA.

Real reform is going to take cooperation among the law schools (including their faculties), the bar, and the bodies charged with setting standards for admission to practice (the state supreme court in most states), all of whom are partially to blame for the current state of things, and all of whom will have to pitch in to create solutions.  Many law schools (mine included) are working hard to rethink their roles and their methods in light of the changes in the market they serve.  Dean Farmer's proposal is a good example of this, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

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