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July 14, 2014

Law schools and the lost generation

by Dan Rodriguez

Criticizing ATL and its legal educ reporters for hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, and other assorted mischief is a habit for those of us on the front lines of this business, and I have this habit as much as anyone.

But, when one of these folks calls it right, credit is due, and listening is the right reaction.

Elie Mystal has a post today on Above the Law that gets to the heart of a real problem, and one which potentially will only grow in significance and impact. Law grads, as he notes, feel increasingly disaffected from their law schools once they graduate, this disaffection being tied not principally (my characterization, not his) to the quality of the education provided, but to the employment outcomes and correlative debt burden suffered by students out in the marketplace with challenges and stress. In the law schools, we call this group (grads of the last seven years or so) “the lost generation.”

The basic problem which undergirds Elie’s righteous and thoughtful post is that law schools too often regard their undemployed or underemployed graduates, more than, say, a year out, as someone else’s problem. Even those law schools that work hard, and creatively, to increase employment opportunities for their current students and newly-minted graduates lack the clear incentives to continue that assistance — and in a tangible way — over the several beginning years of their graduates’ careers. No wonder why young alums perceive their law school as connecting with them only with their hands out for money. They are more right than wrong.

Let’s keep it real and say, again with credit to Elie’s main message in this post that law schools must be proactive and strategic in providing their graduates with assistance over at least the first few years following graduation. Practically, this means (at least): (1) substantial loan repayment assistance (in addition to IBR); (2) assistance which tracks not only public interest/public sector employment, but employment in legal sectors which cannot realistically hold out the promise of helping graduates’ cover their post-graduate debt; (3) meaningful career assistance which continues in the first years following graduation (not “thanks for meeting with us for your 2nd and 3rd year. Good luck!); and (4) professional development initiatives (subsidized principally by the Law School) which assist graduates with developing the most applicable modern skills, skills which will enhance their employment opportunities and point them toward more successful outcomes.

Spare us the “well, law schools will never do this, as it costs them money and it won’t have a perceptible impact on their rankings.” We are doing all four of these things are Northwestern, and we will do more. There are certainly other law schools who are engaging with their young alumni in similarly, if not more, creative ways as well. The costs of substantial action are high, and some law schools will be better resourced (of course) than others to undertake these initiatives. But, folks, let’s move it much higher up our priority list. The time has come to do something meaningful with this lost generation. It’s good for the law schools; and it’s the right thing to do.

So, hats off to Elie (at least until a future irritating post by him!) for making an essential and powerful point about the connection between the applicant decline, young alumni anger, and the flaws in the current structure of legal education.

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