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Not Liable: Law Schools Should Not Be Blamed For The Articling Crisis And The Sometimes Bleak Situation Of Young Lawyers

The Problem is not Law School. The Problem is that Law School is Buffered by Four Years Getting a Useless Undergraduate Degree.

Since the great recession in 2009, there have been a lot of articles  and blogs that have heaped negativity on law school and blamed the economic prospects of young lawyers on law schools. Having gone through it myself, I have followed these articles with interest, but have always believed that the problem that law students with dim career prospects face has been misdiagnosed as a problem with law school, rather than looking at other factors. This creates a situation where people who are concerned about the plight of law students fail to turn their energy to any solution that does not involve reform or regulation of law schools or regulation of the profession, such as in the case of the Law Practice Program.

It is my contention that the problems that lawyers face upon graduation with dim career prospects are not solely, or principally, created by the law school, but are rather a culmination of factors. I would argue that the principal factor causing the most dire problem is not the lack of utility of a law degree, the tuition of the law school and the debt it created or even the competitiveness of the job market for lawyers upon graduation, but the four years that the student was required to spend learning something unnecessary to obtain an undergraduate degree that is utterly useless to the practice of law and that delays the entry to a competitive job market to a point in a person’s life where the consequences of unemployment or underemployment cannot be borne socially or financially. It is the time in a person’s life that causes the lack of an articling position to become a crisis.

The Undergraduate Degree Is Useless To The Practice Of Law

Having chosen to go law school and become a criminal lawyer, I could not have possibly conceived of how useless my undergraduate degree is to me and my ability to generate an income. The concept of studying for four years at university after high school is so ensconced that this time-consuming and debt-inducing rite of passage is almost never questioned. When I raise an objection about the utility of my undergraduate degree as a lawyer, I usually receive the following replies, which I propose to address:

You Learned Critical Thinking At University

No I didn’t. I didn’t attend the Platonic Academy or Oxford or Harvard and I do not think it can be reasonably asserted that I was engaged with some kind of academic elite at university that exposed me to great and noble new ideas and horizons. I actually learned critical thinking when I was 14 years old and I read the Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens and realized that Mother Theresa was a hack and a fraud that had been the beneficiary of some undeserved good PR.

You Became An Education Man At York University – Law School Is A Professional School And Not A General Education

No I didn’t. Further to my point above, I did not become “educated” in the traditional sense at university. The original intended concept of the B.A. is one with understandable appeal. The elites of Europe would send their children to institutions of higher learning like Oxford or Cambridge. There they would learn philosophy, history, classic literature, the King James Bible and Shakespeare. In addition to their courses, this elite would also have an opportunity to socialize with other elites and extraordinary people and professors and would graduate to then become leaders in their chosen fields. Once a person finished a four-year degree like this, with the rigours attached, it was a symbol that the person was an educated man or woman. This concept of becoming part of an educated class was and is very appealing.

But the idea was so appealing that it has been universalized to the point that it does not mean that a person who graduates is an educated elite anymore. In 2016, 28.5% of Canadians had a university degree and the number is rising.  This number does not factor in the students that attend university and do not get a degree. Furthermore, this number does not factor the percentage of urban Canadians that have a university degree, which I submit is likely a much higher number. Given these numbers, does anyone for a moment imagine that education is like it was originally intended today in Canada? The university requirements for admission are no longer rigorous and with an almost vertiginous selection of “bird courses” and with non-rigorous entry requirements for most programs, it is easily deduced that university today is not meant to be a rigorous study from which every person in society can infer that you are an educated person. Furthermore, there are all kinds of creative ways to get your degree that did not exist at the time the idea entrenched itself in Europe and for most of the history of the B.A.

You Were Not Mature Enough To Go To Law School When You Were 18 or 19

I concede this point, but this is not an argument to continue with the traditional four-year degree. Just because I was not mature enough to go to law school at 18 and become a lawyer at 21 does not lead to the conclusion that a four-year undergraduate degree should be a requirement. My law school classmates that grew up in Quebec where they have the CEGEP program began law school at a much younger age and there is no evidence that they become less successful or capable lawyers. If others continue to insist on the B.A. requirement, why does it have to be four years? What profession requires FOUR YEARS of courses to become qualified? A person can become a doctor or a dentist with significantly less theoretical coursework. I would argue that one or two years is sufficient time for a student to prove his or her worth in order to gain acceptance to law school. At its highest, this argument would not validate or justify the traditional four-year B.A requirement for law school.

Well, It May Have Been Useless But You Needed The Degree To Get Into Law School

The above statement is true – but the truth of the statement does not provide a justification for the current state of affairs. Who preordained that a four-year B.A. is necessary in order to get into law school and why? Europeans do not do a four-year B.A. prior to law school. First let me say that I am not one of those that oppose higher education generally. There are various excellent reasons to attend university and complete an undergraduate degree. Whatever the reason, anyone that wants to go to university and pursue undergraduate education should go and study whatever they wish.

My point is that, to prepare for law school and the practice of law is not one of those reasons and it should not be a requirement given the recent changes for law students and young lawyers in terms of the financial strain of law school and the lack of jobs for young lawyers. To have the mandatory four-year B.A. requirement under the current conditions where a law degree is a degree with more limited job prospects than in the past is the biggest contributor to the crisis of law students and young lawyers who cannot find articling positions and entry level jobs. It is an entirely different proposition to graduate from law school (as many of my colleagues from Quebec did) at the age of 22, 23 or 24 and have limited job prospects than it is to graduate at the age of 27, 28 or 29 and face the daunting and demoralizing proposition of moving in with parents and delaying things like gaining financial independence, purchasing a home and starting a family. Furthermore, the problem of getting settled in a career can persist for a year or two or three. This means that law students, under the current state of affairs, can be going into their thirties having never earned any money, starting life from the hole of student debt and facing the prospect of buying a home and starting a family seeming unattainable for many years. We lawyers have a word for that – an injustice.

The Solution Is The Abandonment Of The Traditional Four-Year Degree

The abandonment of the four-year B.A. is a reasonable solution to the crisis law students and young lawyers face. It meant something different to spend four years to do an undergraduate degree for aspiring lawyers when tuition was $700 per year, as it was for the Baby Boomer generation, than it is now when one year of undergraduate university costs approximately ten times that amount (not including living expenses, books and opportunity cost) and the market for young lawyers is much more competitive. If the proposition that a B.A. is no longer indicative of a rigorous education or being part of an academic elite is accepted, then I submit that virtually anything done between the ages of 18-23 is more useful to a person’s growth and development as a professional than a B.A. Without a four-year B.A., the decision to go to law school does not involve: 1) a doubling down on education and 2) the delay of the problems a competitive job market causes to an age when the consequences are intensely magnified. It is precisely the delay of confronting the competitive job market that exacerbates the problem to the point that it becomes a crisis.

Even if the B.A. requirement never fully goes away, given the economic climate that millennials are facing it should be significantly changed to reflect a new economic reality. This could mean various outcomes, such as the lessening of the amount of time for the degree or the proliferation of choice to move away from four years of courses so that, for example, a student that wanted to could spend their time working and earning money or acquiring a life skill, hobby or language while getting the necessary credits to apply for law school.

The situation facing young lawyers struggling in unemployment and underemployment that view their situation as a crisis is essentially a problem of despair and frustration reasonably caused because of the phase of life the typical recently graduated lawyers are entering. Law school is not the main problem in this equation, but rather just the most obvious target of frustration for an unemployed, or underemployed, law student facing such a situation. When you look deeper, it is not the escalating tuition or the lack of utility of a law degree that is to be blamed – it is the fact that you are nearing thirty years of age by the time you get rooted into your employment situation (or lack of it) and face the proposition of paying off your debt while many of your friends and peers that have not attended law school have already purchased a home, have a young family or are established in jobs and careers and are spending money on things they enjoy that is causing despair and frustration. Such despair and frustration truly has the potential to destroy a young lawyer’s confidence and become a life-altering event. The problem of despair and frustration could be nearly completely solved by removing the useless four-year degree requirement (or cutting it down to one or two years).

Thirty year olds can no longer bear the possibility of unemployment or underemployment as lawyers in the era of $30,000 per year tuition at law school without sufficient articling positions and law jobs. I believe that I speak for the vast majority of millennials when I say that our generation has the same aspirations as previous ones: to gain meaningful employment, to buy a home, to get married and have children and be able to provide our children with a decent standard of living. The four-year B.A. requirement is an unnecessary impediment to the things that we want and, given the economic reality facing millennials today, it is unreasonable and unfair to continue to require prospective lawyers to do it. For law students and young lawyers to survive the articling crisis and the current competitive job situation, the undeservedly vaunted and anachronistic concept of the four-year B.A. must yield to reality.

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