Are Lawyers Getting Dumber? The Question May Matter More Than The Answer

This article was originally published in Above the Law on Nov. 6, 2015. Kyle McEntee is the Executive Director of Law School Transparency.

Joe Queenan writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal where he tackles serious issues through cheeky humor. This week, he picked up Law School Transparency’s report on law school admissions. His main conclusion: dumb lawyers are a threat to society.

Generally speaking, he’s right. The legal profession and the clients and general public that depend on it needs a pipeline of smart, capable people. Bad lawyers screw up lives and entire businesses.

But our report provides no evidence that the slide in admissions numbers has created a pathway for dumb lawyers. It is true that, even at top law schools, admissions numbers are sliding because of an exodus of high-LSAT scorers from the applicant pool. There’s just no empirical evidence that the slide at the top has any meaningful consequence on the quality of legal counsel provided by those who eventually pass the bar. The bar exam is not easier to pass. Legal jobs still require passing the bar.

Queenan’s column isn’t troubling because he makes a wrong conclusion, though. It’s that his conclusion is really easy for casual observers (and headline writers) to make when you accept the true premise that a significant number of law schools are setting a significant number of students up to fail. When the attitude proliferates, it chips away at society’s trust in the legal profession, which makes curing society’s ills even more challenging. This week, it’s the Wall Street Journal. In August, dumb lawyers donned the cover of Businessweek.

The solution to reputational bleeding isn’t to change the conversation, as some in legal academia now call for, but to address the substantive, structural issues plaguing legal education.

So what are some of the consequences to the dumb-lawyer narrative?

Reduced access to justice
Put mildly, the United States has an access to justice problem. It’s not a lack of lawyers, it’s a lack of resources. Those who need civil legal services cannot afford them or prefer to spend their money on healthcare or education. Those who receive help from public defenders rely on understaffed offices with monumental caseloads. Increasing funding for civil or criminal justice initiatives already poses an uphill battle, and these initiatives certainly don’t need to be weighed down by a dumb-lawyer narrative.

Reduced bottom lines
Law firms face extraordinary pressure from clients to deliver more value for less money. These demands drive mergers, alternative fee models, new assessment metrics, lateral hiring, and more. Over the past 10 years, clients have been ever-less willing to pay for junior associates to learn on the job. It’s not difficult to imagine a company’s board or general counsel reading Bloomberg or the Wall Street Journal and concluding that their bills should be even less. In fact, clients don’t even need to believe it to use it against firms.

Reduced flexibility to improve legal education
There are really cool initiatives underway that can change how we educate lawyers, and a relatively narrow window in which to push them through. Many schools are pouring resources into remediation to ensure their bar passage rates don’t dip too far. If schools must teach to the bar exam, there’s less time and money to invest in meaningful pedagogical reform.

Reduced interest in law schools that try to do the right thing
From deceptive employment statistics to outrageous costs to unethical admissions and retention policies, law schools have become punching bags because so many law schools keep doing the wrong things. Across the board these stories affect who takes the LSAT, who applies to school, and who enrolls. It may not be fair to the school that substantially reduced class size to ensure firm moral standing, but it’s perfectly predictable.

One ineffective way to fight the newest media narrative is to peddle positive stories. For a public defender office, it may be about how you changed bad law. For a large firm, it may be about how you train new associates. For law schools, it may be about students and faculty community efforts, or minor curricular or price changes.

The better way is to create a distance between the minority of law schools engaged in unethical admissions and retention practices and everyone else. Those practices affect more than the students some schools set up to fail.

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