Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Barriers to Career Entry: Law Edition

by Daniel L. Bennett

Last week, I wrote about a proposal from the Carnegie Foundation to mandate a bachelor's degree for entry into the nursing field - one in which the demand for qualified workers exceeds the supply. This week, I'd like to turn the attention to the law profession. There has been significant online chatter this past week (here, here, here) concerning the declining value of law school due mainly to the supply of law school graduates greatly exceeding the demand.

An article in the CHE Monday draws further attention to this matter. Faced with this glut of law school graduates that are unable to find work, the American Bar Association has proposed that Schools of Law develop measurements of what students actually learn in law school that would provide prospective employers with additional information to base their hiring decisions, as opposed to the prevalent mechanism currently in place of ranking candidates by the reputation of their school, which is based on input measures such as faculty size and library holdings. It seems that this proposal stems from law practitioners themselves, who are increasingly dismayed by law school grads that do not possess the core competencies needed to be effective employees. Phillip A. Bradley was cited in the CHE article as likening
law schools to car companies that are "manufacturing something that nobody wants."
Not surprisingly, law schools themselves are adamantly opposed to evaluating what their student's learn, offering predictable establishment rhetoric such as colleges are facing touch budgets and that the costs would be too high to develop an assessment. This is precisely the type of secrecy that Kevin Carey vividly described in a recent Democracy essay. Essentially, colleges have a vested interest in prohibiting information about the value that they add from being known - law schools are no different. In fact, they are much worse because the ABA has a monopoly on the production of lawyers, which has erected barriers to entry in the field via very expensive 3-year postgraduate degrees and passage of the bar exam.

These barriers have artificially driven up the wages of lawyers and greatly distorted the labor market for lawyers due to the expected enumeration of newly minted entrants who arrive with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and 3 years of lost wages (opportunity cost). In response, firms are hiring only a fraction of law school graduates, leaving a surplus of workers. Theoretically, this should drive down wages in the field, making it a less desirable career path if the price of law school remains high and it remains a barrier to entry in the field.

If the law schools themselves do not want to serve the needs of the end users (hiring firms)of their product (graduates) via not providing them with the core competencies necessary to be an effective employee, then I suspect that the customers will soon find an alternative supplier. There is evidence of this already taking place as the paralegal field, which only requires an associates degree for entry, is expected to grow by 28% by 2018 (versus 12% for lawyers) as employers (according to BLS) try to
"reduce costs and increase the availability and efficiency of legal services by hiring paralegals to perform tasks once done by lawyers."
The only problem with firms hiring more paralegals as opposed to licensed law practitioners is the other barrier to entry - the bar exam. Theoretically speaking, I see no problem with requiring passage of an exam to prove one's competence in a field, similar to the CPA exam for accountants. In fact, I think that assessment is a better barometer of competence in a given profession than an academic credential. Charles Murray would certainly agree with me. The problem, however, is that the ABA oversees the bar exam and requires that examiners have a JD or LLB before being eligible to sit for the exam. I see no reason that a paralegal should be barred from testing his/her knowledge and competence of the field in order to gain a promotion just because they do not have an academic credential. Such professionals may have very well gained enough experience through OJT and/or self-study to pass the bar exam and should be able to prove their merit for a promotion without having to attain an academic credential at an exorbitant cost to feed the education establishment's industrial complex.

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