Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What Is the World Like for New Law Graduates?

Three items this week reinforce the idea that the legal world has changed and continues to change rapidly. They are all to do with education and training of professionals.

KPMG, the accounting firm, has taken 90 school leavers and placed them in accounting courses at Durham and Exeter universities on courses it effectively owns. Over four years they will divide their time between academics and working for KPMG, And they will be paid and get jobs at the end of their "studies".

A new Axiom-like clone has sprung up for trainee lawyers. Acculaw will place trainees in law firms and inhouse law departments as seconded trainees for periods of three to six months. Law firms will be spared the costs of hiring and maintaining trainees. 

For employers Acculaw says the benefits are
• reducing costs
• improving efficiency
• improving resource management
• an alternative to legal process outsourcing
 For trainees
• a truly unique training contract
• working for more than one firm throughout your training contract
• a fresh approach to trainee management
There is of course no guarantee of a job at the end of this process. It's a cheap and cheerful way of providing low cost labour to the profession. At least--in the British system--the graduating trainee will earn the title of lawyer.

The final item is a post by Brian Tamanaha--Sobering Numbers: Law Graduates Who Do Not Become Lawyer--on Balkinization. He reports that at 30 law schools (list on post) less than 50% of graduates gained employment as lawyers. And that is after three years of study with tuition costs in the region of $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Of course there is dispute over what the figures mean, include and exclude.

The assistant dean for career development at Michigan State College of Law, Elliot Spoon, reckons that an overly fine distinction between "JD required" and "JD preferred" resulted in an undercount as it would be feasible to consider JD preferred jobs as legal jobs, eg. law clerking.

Indeed it is a brave new world for law graduates. Stable careers are long gone and contract work is becoming the norm for many, even at the training level. Education it seems is transforming into training without the benefits that true education can bring. More and more the employers, as in the case of KPMG, are taking charge of selection leaving the academy as a mere processing plant. And an expensive one at that.

The current model of legal education is unsustainable in its present form. It can't make up its mind as to whether it is education or training for jobs, or, worse, some cackhanded attempt at both. This failing besets legal education in both the US and the UK and others too.

Legal education is a perverse mix of cheap delivery and expensive consumption. The academy has the present advantage of providing the only route into the legal profession, or what's left of it. I imagine it won't retain that monopoly. In the UK there are ambitious for-profit "education providers" (eg. BPP in the UK part of the Apollo Group in the US) who are muscling into the market and already forming bonds with employers such as law firms. The ABA vainly hopes by delaying accreditation of offshore law schools it will protect US law schools.

Unfortunately, the legal academy, except for a few (eg. Bill Henderson, Brian Tamanaha) refuses to recognize a problem or at least collectively reflect on it. In the UK we are seeing the unbundling of legal services and the education and training that works alongside it. Soon the academy won't be recognizable and maybe that's not a bad thing in itself. But the academy will have to face this before long. I hope they won't have held off too long.


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