Proving there are turkeys after Thanksgiving, a couple of career law school académicos opined in Black Friday’s Washington Post championing “low-bono” legal services so that “talented young lawyers will devote an early stage of their career to communities in need.”
William Treanor, Georgetown Law Center Executive Vice President, Dean and Professor of Law, and Jane Aiken, Vice Dean, Associate Dean (Experiential Education) and Professor of Law at the same school, are the noblesse oblige promoters of that well-worn access to justice idea. The glut of new, unemployed young lawyers, they reckon, can charge “affordable fees” so that working people earning too much to qualify for legal aid can obtain legal representation.
Since most people can’t afford to hire a lawyer, low-bono is a laudable enough idea — even if it comes from a pair of insular ivory tower inhabitants who from their CVs appear not to have any experience running their own law practices where they had to make their monthly nut.
This lack of real-world client-contact lawyer experience, however, is hardly disqualifying for Ivory Tower residency, as my buddy The Legal Watchdog has often pointed out. And so they blithely declare,“While pro-bono work is offered for free, the low-bono models provide adequate financial support for attorneys.” So much for the cursory conjecture of the comfortably clueless.
“Lower-income residents who don’t qualify for free legal aid but can’t afford lawyers suffer devastating consequences in court,” they complain citing the sad tale of a sixty year-old widow evicted from her home. “And yet even as they fall, unrepresented, through the cracks, we keep hearing about a glut of unemployed lawyers, many of them recent law-school graduates,” as though vaguely remembering a regurgitated classroom abstraction. Harder to ignore is the haughty self-serving skepticism, “we keep hearing about a glut of unemployed lawyers.” This must mean if they don’t believe it — it must not be true.
The reality is that for some time, it’s been well documented that new lawyers graduate with “soul crushing, crippling” six-figure debt. Indeed, the financial obligations are so humongous that it’s impossible for them to service those loans without a reasonably paying job. And while the economy has improved since the depths of the recession, good paying law-related work is still hard to come by. So it’s hard to conceive how jobless, low-income or no income recent law school graduates straddled with over $150,000 in debt will be in any position to “devote an early stage of their career to communities in need” when they themselves are card-carrying members of those communities.
You’d think these two well-placed high level Georgetowners would know better. Or that they’d concede at least to save face, that law school graduate debt is no abstraction — especially at Georgetown. According to the latest US News & World Report, Georgetown University is 12th on the list of “Which law school graduates have the most debt?” with an average 2014 graduate indebtedness of $150,529 and with 79% of its grads with debt.
But unfortunately, with very few exceptions, law school professors, deans and administrators would rather not acknowledge the elephant-sized schools vs. students conflict of interest or the post-graduate employment risks and high cost realities of attending law school. As Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times writer David Segal famously wrote 4 years ago: “Legal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.”
Being very smart, though, I have no doubt there’s one reality they can’t ignore: “Fewer and Fewer Students Are Applying to Law School.” Also see: “Enrollment at Law Schools Continues to Decline.”
In the end, the solution, which they will eventually come to albeit not quietly and not before some law schools close will be an approach along the lines just recommended for universities by Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein. He advocates greatly improving productivity, cutting overhead and lowering the overall tuition cost. See “Four tough things universities should do to rein in costs.”