More on legal education
posted by Frank Bowman
One of the commenters on my opening salvo on legal education raises a point I thought might come up – essentially the much ballyhooed assertion that clients are no longer willing to pay for the training of young associates. The implication being that because clients are less willing to pay for hours billed by ignorant or inefficient legal rookies then law schools must necessarily adjust curricula to provide training no longer available through law firms. Although I’m in favor of doing more to prepare practice-ready graduates, I’m not at all sure the “clients won’t pay for training” story really flies as a rationale for doing it.
First, I don’t think clients were ever consciously “paying for new associate training.” What may have been true is that, in flusher times, big firm clients more readily accepted the overstaffing of cases and the sometimes comically high hourly rates big firms billed for the low-value-added time of young associates. The result was that big firm clients “paid for” associate training in the sense that the associates were learning on the job and their firms were able to earn big profits from their time while they did so. Now, it appears that big firm clients are more sensitive to overstaffing and are unwilling to pay high hourly rates for inefficient or low-value-added associate labor. The result cannot be that big firms aren’t training their new associates. That would be suicidal. The associates have to be trained or they will be unable to produce the high-quality work for which clients ARE willing to pay and on which the firm’s reputation and long-term survival depends. Rather, to the extent a client rebellion against expensive associate billing is underway, the real effect will be to reduce the number of associates hired because they are no longer automatic profit centers. Which is pretty consistent with what we see in the marketplace.
Now, reduced big firm associate hiring is bad for our graduates because there are fewer job opportunities and bad for law schools in the sense that, as the market for lawyers shrinks, so too does the market for law training. BUT it is not at all clear that this market perturbation can be remedied, or even much affected, by alterations in law school curriculum. We can and should make our graduates more practice-ready, but no conceivable modification of law school curriculum would provide the highly specialized subject matter and skills training necessary to transform a Big Law rookie into a midlevel associate worth her $400/hour. That sort of refined training will always be performed on the job. The very best law schools can do would be to provide a better foundation that might speed the developmental process by 6 mos or a year.
Second, most of the talk about changed client willingness to “pay for” associate training is Big Law talk. In the less rarified regions where most students from non-top-20 law schools find jobs, clients have never been willing to “pay for” young lawyer training in any sense. So firms bill young associate time at low rates or bill for fewer hours than the new lawyers spend in order to avoid alienating clients. Nonetheless, such employers – like those in Big Law – know that they have to train their new lawyers if they are to become assets. And they do – some better than others – as an investment in future improved productivity and economic return. I don’t think there is anything new about this. The change, if any, in current circumstances is the overall decline in legal business with a concomitant lower demand for investment in new associates to grow practices.
Still, law schools may be able to help our students and their prospective employers (large and small) by shortening the interval during which they are unproductive assets of the firm. More practice-ready graduates can develop faster into lawyers worth their hourly rates. This in turn shortens the payout period on a firm’s investment in a new associate and raises its rate of return. All of which should, in theory,increase lawyer hiring (or at least give a competitive advantage to graduates of schools who produce practice-ready diplomates).
Does this make sense?