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Changing Perspectives: What Lawyers expect from Life and the Practice

Ron Fox, a recognized expert in career planning contributes regularly to our ALPS 411 blog and recently posted a great piece titled “Tasks to Accomplish for a Satisfying Law Career”. It started an interesting discussion that led me to think about lawyers’ expectations and how they may have changed over the years.

When I went to law school in the early 1970s, most students just hoped to graduate and find a job. We started with a class of 101 students sitting in a classroom that only held 100. The expectation that we would all survive the process simply didn’t exist. Fast forward two years and nine months, 65 students graduated and six or seven of those were inbound transfers. The teaching method was Socratic and to a degree one of little satisfaction along the way. We felt humiliated at times when we didn’t get the point of cases and praise simply didn’t exist. We had eight o’clock classes six days a week our first semester and Saturday classes for our first two years. Most importantly, it was either graduate in three years or you were out. Incidentally, there were less than twelve women in my class and over half dropped out. On the flip side, our tuition amounted to about $320.00 dollars per year and if I bought all brand new text books they would cost between $150.00 and $200.00 per year. Back then we also had no student fees; they were all included in the tuition.

We had little campus recruitment below the court clerkships that always went to the top 10% of the class. For the rest of us it meant finding summer clerkships with firms or the local prosecutor and relying on the bulletin board where some firms posted job notices. Many of us spent our spring breaks traveling the state making contacts in hope of it leading to a job after graduation. We knew a lot about legal subject matter, but were clueless about applying it in the real world. We expected to learn that when we got a job. We also expected to retire right about now. I offer these facts as simple perspective, not a testament on how tough it was “in the old days.” Factually, I think it’s tougher today than it was in my time for any number of reasons.

In talking to recent graduates and current students, I see a very different perspective and set of expectations. Those students who entered law school in recent years expect to graduate even if it takes more than three years. They expect to come out with both a knowledge base and a skill base that makes them ready to practice law and apply their knowledge in many broad areas outside the actual practice of law; have no expectation of being in the same job their entire career; and really don’t have many expectations about what they will do when they get out. But they do have much higher expectations of what assistance their schools will provide in securing their first job. A number of other things have changed. Women comprise the majority of new law graduates; court clerkships no longer represent the fast track to dream jobs with great pay in only the very best firms; many come out of school with upwards of $100,000 in student loan debt; and they face a very different legal environment than I did when I got out. In addition, they have an expectation of having a life outside work and the practice of law. They don’t want to delay families, children or wake up one day and realize that they missed the early years of their children’s life, or that they and their spouse or significant other have gone down separate paths and lost their original connection.

What does this all mean? The practice of law and the uses of a legal education changed with the times. Heck, when I graduated automation was an IBM Selectric ® typewriter with correction tape built into the ribbon; dictation went onto wide belts or secretaries still took it using shorthand; and some court reporters still created a record using shorthand. Today, nobody dictates and court transcription has become an electronic art form. Most importantly, today’s new law graduates get out of school so much better prepared to face life and all it entails, but start from a deficit my peers never faced.

They have greater automation, which benefits them on one hand, but on the other it erodes their opportunities as online form and legal help websites erode the traditional practice of law. They start with much higher starting pay grades than we did, but, with inflation, overhead has put legal services way out of the reach of many consumers. They face conflicts in the traditional legal community where firms have become much more business-oriented and less user-friendly (both inside and outside). They have entered a period where the court systems find themselves so overburdened that it takes years to bring matters to completion, where the pressure to unburden dockets force settlements and fail to give young lawyers needed trial experience to become really proficient at their craft. To make things worse, large clients will no longer pay to train young advocates as “second chairs” in trials and deposition. In addition, they face a Bar where civility and cooperation often don’t seem to exist.

I find all this hard to reconcile and certainly don’t have any solutions—well maybe one: make all lawyers employees of the government and make legal services (both sides) free to the public. I didn’t say everyone would like it, certainly not the advocates of smaller government intrusion in our lives. Beyond that, I really believe that law schools need to examine their roles in the process and focus on a future that produces fewer “traditional lawyers.” I understand that this may mean the end of legal education as we know it and that many law schools may close or combine with other disciplines to create a broader array of legal service providers.

Most importantly, the organized Bar and governing courts needs to wake up and smell the flowers. The current model has broken and it seriously needs fixing. Many young lawyers worry more about access to justice issues than my generation did because the problem has grown exponentially. In our day, court appointments for the indigent were the order of the day. Today, we’ve foisted that off on public defenders and legal service providers funded in a myriad of ways. The problem? The system has abandoned the great middle class. Current pro-bono programs help, but frankly in order to make them work, practicing lawyers would need to take on such a load that they couldn’t make a living.

We need to recognize that the American judicial system—once the envy of the world—needs a significant retro-fit if it is going to allow new law graduates to fulfill their life expectations and the needs of the public. I don’t believe that going back to the model of my early legal career could solve the problem. We have different issues to deal with, a knowledge curve that boggles the mind, and needs that outstrip the supply of available and affordable legal services. We also need to recognize the decline of the American middle class (not gone) which now occupies a much narrower economic band that it did in the 1960s and 1970s. We need to face the reality that we (yes, my generation) have left our children and grandchildren with a society littered with greater problems than we faced and a standard of living lower than we inherited. We also left a generation of citizens who have the skills to solve the problems if we let go of the political strings and let them do it. We must abandon our “I have mine – don’t touch” attitudes and be prepared to become part of the solution—whatever that may be and with whatever sacrifices it may bring to all generations. We have no more right to what we possess in our old age than the next generation has to expect a better life on the backs of the generations that follow.

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Related Posts:

Tasks to Accomplish for a Satisfying Law Career

Knowing When to Hold-um and When to Fold-um - A Dilemma for Boomer Lawyers

How Consistent Is Your Present Position With Your Goals And Values?

Satisfying Careers and the Responsibilities of Legal Educators

Comments for Changing Perspectives: What Lawyers expect from Life and the Practice

Name: Liam
Time: Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"They start with much higher starting pay grades than we did."

This is simply not true. Many law graduates have to work unpaid internships for several months before being offered any salary. I graduated from a school ranked in the top 20. I had to work three months for free and then I was offered $1,000 per month for three months after that. Next, my salary was raised to a princely sum on $2,000 per month. I quit that job and now I'm making $40,000, which was the amount I was making before law school and before I incurred $200,000 in debt. Law school destroyed my life.

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