May 28, 2011
Tiers of Associates; Tiers for Legal Degrees?
Posted by Erik Gerding

The NY Times added another story this week to the chronicles of changing market for lawyers.  The story detailed how a number of larger firms have created a second tier of associates, one with reduced hours and reduced salary, and removed from the partnership track.  Some firms move this new tier of associates to offices in smaller legal markets where overhead for the firm (and housing for the lawyers) is cheaper. 

The article compared it to outsourcing jobs, but within the country.  The article also quoted Bill Henderson, who has been studying trends in the legal employment market for years.  In many ways, this latest law firm innovation means that the bi-modal distribution of lawyers salaries, which Henderson has studied, now occurs not only between firms but within firms as well. 

Towards the end, the article discusses what the reduced salary and career advancement means when students carry significant debt loads from attending law school.  This article should serve as yet another warning sign for legal education.  (One should note the Times content appetite has created a propensity to string interesting factual developments into ready-made trends.) 

But if this trend does have staying power, it means that the shake-up of the legal services market is not just short-term and cyclical, but lasting and structural. A number of the bloggers on this site and elsewhere have worried that if any law school's tuition, and the debt load of their students, continually outraces the earning prospects of the students, there will be dire consequences for school and graduates.

The tiering of associates has clear parallels in the tiering of law schools.  This hierarchy -- reinforced and made more cutthroat by rankings -- would become more pronounced if the tectonic shifts in compensating legal graduates continue.  If students realize they cannot pay a school's higher tuition, they will stop coming.  Journalists help applicants connect the dots.  And the crisis in the legal profession and in legal education is very good for business for journalists.

Law firms have been innovative in adapting to changed economic circumstances, but law schools less so.  Tighter budgets, more fund-raising, more use of adjuncts, more investment in placement might help law schools.  As might more relevant and creative legal training to prepare students.

But perhaps legal education should make even deeper changes.  If there are tiers in the legal market, would it make sense to have more tiers in the types of legal degrees? We have the beginnings of tiers now, but LLMs are largely limited to tax and foreign students and SJDs to aspiring academics.  The real issue is that the JD may be too long, too much of an investment, and too risky given potential job prospects.  But the next step down -- paralegals -- might be too big a step down.

Developing an intermediate category seems like a natural fit for the changing legal market. My co-blogger Christine has already floated the idea of an intermediate master's degree, which would allow students to exit law school after a year or two of training. 

Another idea, would be to revive the LLB degree, but more in line with the model of England and other countries, which offer law as an undergraduate degree.  This would lower the cost of a legal education.  But it would also come with some downsides.  Family experience tells me that forcing high schoolers to make a professional choice -- particularly to be a lawyer -- at a young age can entail high personal costs.  There is something truly wonderful, albeit luxurious, about an undergraduate liberal arts education. 

But the English model has more flexibility than that of continental countries.  I have one English friend who took (or "read for"or whatever the anglo jargon is) a bachelor's degree  in literature, then took a "conversion course" to enable him to then join an inn of court and become a barrister.

Indeed, there is much U.S. legal education might learn from England, which I think offers the best preparation for being a young lawyer in the world - largely by virtue of the apprenticeship (or pupillage) systems. 

But England's lessons come not only in the quality of legal training.  The tiering may represent, instead of a fusty medieval vestige, a way to offer American legal students different paths to legal practice, at different costs, with different rewards, but also with different risks.  One size does not fit all - whether you are dealing with a financial investment or an educational one.

Update (5/28): Here is a partial reading list of recent scholarship on changes in the legal market, including how these changes are or should be affecting legal education: 

Ribstein, Practicing Theory;

Henderson & Bierman, An Empirical Analysis of Lateral Lawyer Trends;

podcasts from the Iowa Law Review symposium on the future of legal education;



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