Friday, July 5, 2013

Ask Jefferson and Lincoln How Law Schools Ruined Lawyers

 By Jim Verdonik

I'm an attorney with Ward and Smith PA. I also write a column about business and law for American Business Journals, have authored multiple books and teach an eLearning course for entrepreneurs. You can reach me at or Or you can check out my eLearning course at
or or you can purchase my books at

 [Note: This post is a longer version of an Article I wrote that was originally published in Triangle Business Journal in July2013.]

Did you know that law schools are having trouble recruiting students?
Lots of young people are deciding not to borrow another $100,000 on top of their undergraduate loans – especially when many recent law graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

Law schools used to be refuges for students in recessions.  If there aren't jobs when you graduate college, hide in law school for three years.  By that time the job market will improve.  There's always room for more lawyers.

But times have changed.  The market for young lawyers is only marginally better than when the stock market crashed in 2009. 
Law schools are cash cows for universities.  They're like the big SUVs and trucks are for car companies.  There's more profit per vehicle/student than other vehicles/students they produce.

So, higher margins tempted law schools to keep adding students during economic boom times.  For the past several years or longer, they're been producing more new lawyers than the market needs.  Sounds a lot like condo builders in Florida and Las Vegas, doesn't it?  First the real estate bubble.  Then the law student bubble.
So, students are finally acting like intelligent consumers.  If the market doesn't need so many young lawyers, why shouldn't young people ask:  Who needs law schools?

That's a problem for law schools, but maybe it's an opportunity for everyone else.
Let's run with that question.

Who needs law schools?  And why?
Let's start answering these questions by remembering that law schools are a recent innovation.

America's two most famous lawyers didn't go to law school - Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
You remember them don't you?  They have big memorials on the Mall in Washington DC, but they were lawyers.

So, let's ask the question:  Have law schools produced better lawyers than Jefferson and Lincoln?

Before you answer, let's take a quick look at Jefferson's and Lincoln's work product.

"Unalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
"Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

When you read the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, you might not recognize them as legal documents.  That's because the best kind of legal writing doesn't sound like it was written by a lawyer.  
Let's face it, something sounds like it was written by a lawyer, they suspect it contains hidden tricks.  People don't take action if they suspect there are tricks.  That weakens any call to action a lawyer is making.  

But close examination of both the Declaration and the much shorter Gettysburg Address reveal their legal underpinnings.
The Declaration of Independence was nothing more than a legal brief.  Jefferson was arguing in the court of American public opinion and world leaders in Europe why the colonists were legally entitled to independence.  Most of the Declaration is an indictment of King George and the horrible things he did.  Jefferson acted as both the colonists' defender and King George's prosecutor. 

Jefferson makes King George sound like a 18th Century version of Bernie Madoff who ran the colonies like a Ponzi scheme for his personal benefit at the expense of the blameless colonists.
The structure of the Gettysburg Address is less formally legal.  But the legal theme is that the living owe a debt to the dead who sacrificed on the battlefield.  —" that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."  Lincoln then asserted that this debt must be repaid by making sure that our Free nation established by a prior generation's sacrifice doesn't perish.  Again, that's another debt to the Founding generation of four score and seven years ago.

Essentially, Lincoln was making the same argument at Gettysburg that he might have made a decade earlier if he was trying to collect a debt as a lawyer in Springfield Illinois. 
But Lincoln makes it sound a lot nobler than the pushy debt collectors we have today.  Doesn't he?

That's what great lawyers do.  They make effective calls to action.
That's what wins negotiations, trials and wars.

OK, now you are ready to answer the question:  Are law schools producing better lawyers than Lincoln and Jefferson?
But if great lawyers like Jefferson and Lincoln didn't graduate from law school, how were they educated?  How did all lawyers learn their trade before universities found out how profitable law schools are?

Lawyers "read the law" in the offices of experienced lawyers. 
Reading the law was a type of apprenticeship like carpenters, blacksmiths and plumbers went through. 

You simply read the decisions of judges and tried to identify general legal principles you could later apply to other cases for clients.  You also watched other lawyers the way a carpenter's apprentice watched an experienced carpenter work to learn the parts of your trade that didn't come from books.
Jefferson's apprenticeship followed two years of college education in the classics.  Four score years later, Lincoln's legal education was much less formal.  He simply borrowed books from a lawyer, obtained a license and became partners with the lawyer who loaned him the books.

It certainly makes you wonder whether the product that law schools produce are worth $100,000 student loans.
Let me end this by saying that I'm not totally against law schools.

I received a year of good education during my three years in law school.  And that underlines one of the problems.  Do lawyers really need four years of undergraduate education followed by three years of law school?  No wonder most lawyers graduate deep in debt.  Couldn't part of that time be better spent learning practical skills?
Jefferson and Lincoln were too smart to waste so much time.

America might still be a British colony if Jefferson had done that.  The South might have prevailed if Lincoln spent seven years of his life in school to become a lawyer.
So, why erect a $100,000 barrier to the noble profession that produced Jefferson and Lincoln?

Doesn't America deserve better?
But we would be remiss if we single out lawyers and law schools.

A bigger question is:  Has America gone credentials crazy?
Do we assign too much value to credentials?

How are most credentials obtained?
Many academic credentials require the ability to sit in a classroom for extended periods listening to someone with credentials talk without falling asleep and knocking your head against a desk.

Perhaps we should be asking ourselves: How pertinent is that skill to the jobs we want people to do?
Jefferson and Lincoln would be proud of you, if you ask yourself that question and take action based on your answer.

Respond to their calls to action like earlier generations did.
Happy July 4th.

PS:  Google the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, which includes an online law degree and what is purported to have the highest unemployment rate for its graduates.  The GREATS can't control what people do in their names.
If you would like to learn more about learning how to grow your business or other issues important to your success, you can reach me at or Or you can check out my eLearning course at
or or you can purchase my books at


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