Tuesday, April 28, 2015
The New York Law Journal has published my letter about the crisis in legal education:
Dean Jill Backer's article "JD Advantage Versus JD Required: The Old Rules No Longer Apply" (Special Report: Law Schools, NYLJ April 20) was dangerous misinformation, and the New York Law Journal should have vetted her conclusory arguments more carefully.
I've been practicing for more than 30 years, and I've heard time and again that a JD is a versatile degree. While I suppose it is true that a law degree does not necessarily damage one's career prospects in non-law fields (I would dispute this, by the way), six figures of non-chargeable debt is a hell of a price to pay for a credential that confers no real economic advantage. An MA in history is a fine degree to have too, and every bit as useful for someone who does not wish to practice law.
Here's the deal: I know people who went to law school, practiced for a bit, and then moved into non-legal careers. I know people who never worked in the legal profession after obtaining their law degrees. I do not know anyone who entered law school anticipating that this would be the direction that their careers would take. Oh wait, I take that back. Two of my classmates were tenured social science faculty at my university—a husband and wife—who obtained their degrees for free, on a lark. They were fun classmates, but rather unusual, I think.
We do prospective students a huge disservice with the lie that a JD is just a handy thing to have around, like a hammer or a roll of duct tape. A law school education is a specialized form of professional training that is pointed toward one thing, and that thing, a career in the law, is becoming increasingly rare.
Being a lawyer hasn't been a path to wealth in a long, long time but it used to be a way to make a decent middle-class living. Now that's not even true. Ours is a profession in crisis. The responsible thing to do would be to rethink and re-scale legal education so that we don't end up destroying young lives and careers that might otherwise be happy and productive.
William C. Altreuter
The author is a founding partner at Altreuter Berlin in Buffalo