April 16, 2009

Graduate Law Degree In Stuff You Should Have Learned About Anyway

UCLA Law School, one of the elite law schools, has announced that, owing to the poor state of the economy, so few of its graduates are getting the prestigious, high-paying jobs they came to expect as their entitlements earned by virtue of having received a UCLA J.D., it will expand its Transition to Practice LL.M. program by twenty seats, thereby offering its graduates the opportunity to pay an additional year's tuition to work on what it calls "experiential learning and skills." The program will "replicate significant parts of the learning that comes in the first year of practice, but in a controlled learning environment."

In other words, you can't get a Biglaw job out there even if you have a UCLA degree any more. That's how bad the legal market sucks right now. And we, the administration at UCLA Law School, can't imagine that any of our graduates would demean themselves working insurance defense or opening solo practices - you can't possibly make two hundred large a year doing that! Now, we know that we haven't taught you enough over the last three years that you could actually, you know, go into court and do something useful for a client. You'll just get yourself into trouble if you tried that sort of stunt right now. So here's what you should do -- defer your student loans for another year and in fact, borrow another $50,000 (make that $75,000 if you're not a California resident yet). Then spend a year learning how to actually draft a complaint, which is something that in some other environment (say, a less prestigious firm than the ones you might have hoped to have worked at), you'd be paid to do under the tutelage of a supervising attorney.

Sound like a good deal to you? Not me. By the end of my third year of law school, I was done, D-O-N-E and ready to get out into the real world and start practicing. I wanted to start making some real money, too, although back then there wasn't much real money to be made for first-years unless you had entree into one of those cool Biglaw firms that I was never going to get into anyway. And I was scared to death of those student loans I'd racked up. Accumulating more debt was about the least attractive career move I could have imagined.

My law school didn't offer an LL.M. in "Transition to Practice," either -- instead, it offered substantial clinical and advocacy programs as part of its J.D. curriculum. I had also been clerking for a public interest firm during law school, juggling academic demands and professional ones. By the time I got that J.D., I was ready. I knew how to write a complaint. I knew how to fill out a subpoena. I had drafted, and argued, motions and oppositions to motions -- and won. I had already sat second-chair in a trial. I'd had to break bad news to clients. I'd had to sweet-talk filing clerks into letting me fix formatting problems with pleadings five minutes before the filing deadline. Much of that come from my clerking and clinical work, very little of it from what I did in a classroom (other than in Trial Advocacy class, which I absolutely loved, my favorite class in all of law school).

Don't get me wrong. UCLA is a terrific law school. I can't think of a single UCLA Law graduate who isn't stunningly smart (really, I can't) and their faculty is world-class. Seriously, if I were President I'd nominate Eugene Volokh for the Supreme Court. And I think an emphasis on clinical education is important in legal education, so I hope that students who have spent all three years of their legal education pursuing airy academic concepts find some way to learn how to actually do what it is that we lawyers do.

But it seems very odd that UCLA would offer a graduate degree in this. My law school (Loyola of Los Angeles) is not as prestigious as UCLA. Fewer of its graduates do Supreme Court clerkships. Fewer of its graduates get Biglaw jobs making Biglaw bucks. But on the other hand, proportionally more of its graduates became judges than UCLA, or Stanford, or Berkeley. And I know from my own experience that if done right, there is no need at all for a "transition to practice" after law school. If you've been going to a law school that actually cares about turning out attorneys capable of practicing law, and if you've been paying attention to the fact that one day you're going to have to work for a living as a lawyer, you won't need to get an LL.M. in practical lawyering -- you should have been doing this stuff all along anyway.

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