When I applied to law school in 1975, the nation was recovering from a severe and prolonged recession. Even so, I always assumed that I’d be able to make a comfortable living with a legal degree, although I didn’t think that practicing law would make me rich.
Three and a half years later, I became a new associate at one of the nation’s largest law firms, Kirkland & Ellis. It had about 150 attorneys in two offices, Chicago and Washington, D.C. My annual salary was $25,000, which is $80,000 in 2012 dollars. There were rumours that some partners in large firms earned as much as 10 or fifteen times that amount; by any measure, that was and is a lot of money.
The unlikely prospect of amassing great wealth wasn’t what attracted me to the law. Rather, I saw it as a prestigious profession whose practitioners enjoyed personally satisfying careers in which they provided others with counsel, advice, judgment, and a unique set of skills. Mentors at my first and only law firm taught me to focus on a single result: high-quality work for clients. If I accomplished that goal, everything else would take care of itself.
Today, the business of law focuses law school deans and practitioners in big law firms on something else: maximizing immediate profits for their institutions. That has muddied the profession’s mission and, even worse, set it on a course to become yet another object lesson in the perils of short-term thinking. Like the dot-com, real estate, and financial bubbles that preceded it, the lawyer bubble won’t end well, either. But now is the time to consider its causes, stop its growth, and take steps that might soften the impact when it bursts.
The Lawyer Bubble is about much more than lawyers. It’s about a mentality that has accompanied the corporatization of America’s most important institutions, including the legal profession — a dramatic transformation that is still unfolding. Behind the change is a drive to boost current-year performance and profits at the expense of more enduring values for which there are no quantifiable measures. But omitting critical costs from the decision-making calculus doesn’t make them any less important or their damaging consequences any less profound.
The Lawyer Bubble began to form when vital institutions — law schools and the American Bar Association (ABA) — abdicated their responsibilities in favour of misguided metrics and insularity. Law school deans are supposed to be the profession’s gatekeepers, but far too many have ceded independent judgment in an effort to satisfy the mindless criteria underlying law school rankings, especially U.S. News & World Report’s annual list.
Those rankings didn’t exist until 1987; now they rule the law school world for both students and administrators. Flawed methodology infects each category — quality assessment, selectivity, placement, and resources. But with the acquiescence of the ABA, deans inflate their schools’ rankings with incomplete and misleading information and encourage prospective students to pursue dreams that, for most of them, are impossible, all in the name of increasing applications, enrollments, and tuition revenues.
Vulnerable young people become convinced that anyone can succeed as a lawyer. Because much of their undergraduate audience consists of liberal arts majors who can’t decide what to do next, law schools appear to be an attractive default option. Add a universal human affliction — confirmation bias — and the fit becomes too perfect: law schools tell prospective students what they want to hear, and sure enough, they hear it. The U.S. News rankings then tell them which schools to attend. Easy money for student loans fuels the entire system.
Excerpt adapted with permission from The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis by Steven J. Harper. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.
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