Wednesday, May 7, 2014

It's the End of the World as We Know It

The University of Arizona is about to destroy the legal profession.

The University of Arizona is about to save the legal profession.

And it's all thanks to this little sheet of paper.

Find out why the world as we know it changed forever today after the jump.

The U of A offering a BA in Law is both revolutionary and old hat.  Perhaps a little bit about the history of the legal profession in America is in order.  Pop quiz, hot shot!  Where did Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow and William Howard Taft go the law school?  Go ahead, I'll give you a second to Google it and spoil the surprise...

Nowhere.  That's where.  It used to be, in this country, that the legal profession was treated the same as a trade.  So, essentially, the process you went through to become a lawyer was the same as the process to become a mason, a carpenter, a barber, or a doctor.  No actual formal degree was required.

Wait, what?

Truth.  Both law and medicine did not require formal education.  I mean, we're talking 18th century here, so the term "medicine" is somewhat deceiving when the primary method of treatment for anything is amputation and burning.   So, the requirements for being a surgeon and a barber were not dramatically different.  No.  Seriously.  Against that back drop, it is a bit less strange that formal education was not required for law.  Actually, against ANY back drop it shouldn't seem that strange.  First, it wasn't as if people were allowed to run around, randomly claiming to be lawyers, and executing wills and such.  From colonial times, America did have a certifying public board for law, just as other trades did.  That's the whole point of "the bar."  To ensure someone can actually practice law.  Second, the law in early America was a little simpler.  There wasn't quite the morass that has evolved from being a fully captured system.  But that's for another article.

Entitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Banking Industry or Else"
Then, in the early 1800s, as the wealthy felt that the whole process of apprenticing and clerking and all that was hard and smelled bad and dramatically cut into their "subjugation of minorities" time, they sought out a more formal educational process.  Oxford, and other fancy-shmancy schools in England, were already offering legal education at the time, but that education was more geared towards the philosophy and academia of law.  So, some of the more prestigious institutions in America began offering their own bachelor of law courses, often times incorporating a more "practical" element to the educational process.  This new legal degree began to gain popularity throughout the 19th century.

There was a problem, however, in that it was difficult for schools to teach the academics of law along with the practical components and the general education necessary for a decent college degree.  The solution?  Schools started offering law degrees as doctorate degrees around the turn of the century.  That allowed schools to focus on the legal aspect of legal training, with the assumption that the rest of it was already taken care of.  Also, you know, they could charge more for doing less.

This is why Lincoln and Darrow could be lawyers without ever graduating college and how Taft could serve in pretty much every legal position feasible with only a bachelors.  They all predated the trend of the Juris Doctor.  Schools continued to bicker back and forth over whether law should be a JD or a Bachelor's for many years.  But, eventually, the JD became the universally applied law degree way back in the ancient days of the early 1970s.

A period when human civilization was dominated by elaborate ceremonial face paints and strange, deafening instruments
You see, UA's claim to be the first school to offer a Bachelor's in Law is a bit misleading, it really should be:

University of Arizona to Offer Nation’s First Bachelor of Arts in Law Since Polyester Stopped Being a Thing

Of course, it's not just as simple as turning the clock back.  A lot has changed since the JD became the predominant legal degree.  First, the vast majority of state bars not require it before you can, you know, actually become a lawyer.  And, since the requirement of a JD became standard place, it has also led to an explosion in law schools.

The mandating that attorneys have a doctorate to become licensed in their field created a very strange market.  Medicine is about the only other field where you absolutely have to have both a doctorate and a license to practice (even psychology and engineering often only require one or the other (or in Arizona, NEITHER)).  This had an effect of creating a fairly substantial barrier to entry during the mid-20th century, which then led to a dramatic increase in lawyer wages.  Putting them on par with doctors.  And... and this is a secret we don't often discuss among the peasantry... law school is way, way easier than medical school.

Molly, please show the class which of these things is a "tort."
Since law school was easier and could lead to a very lucrative future the demand for it skyrocketed.  The number of law schools and the number of people attending law school grew and grew throughout the end of the 20th century.  Eventually, this country was turning our roughly 50,000 new layers per year. But, nowhere near that many new jobs.  You can see where this is going to end.

Badly. It's ending badly.

The legal profession is currently in shambles.  Salaries and job opportunities are receding at terrifying paces.  Meanwhile, law school admissions have just barely started to taper off.  It's been a pretty horrible and substantial crash.  And it's a worse crash than other sectors because, make no mistake, this has happened with other professions.  Business, engineering, computer sciences have all gone through similar busts.  The problem is, again, the legal profession requires a doctorate.  And those, it turns out, aren't cheap.  The end result is much more crippling debt and a much bleaker prospects.

Then, the U of A made this new degree.  Why?  Well, according to them, it's for people that could use some legal training but don't want to be lawyers.  That's horseshit, pure and simple.  This degree, as of right now, is useless.  Completely and utterly useless.  But... it might not be for long.

Thanks Arizona!
See, since the profession has begun to crash, one way law schools have been selling themselves is by saying there are other jobs out there aside from attorney that law degrees are applicable to.  And they aren't wrong, there are indeed.  The problem, of course, is that those jobs pay worse, generally, and are harder to find.  Going to law school to not-be-a-lawyer was ludicrous proposition before.  But this bachelor's of law degree sort of offers an opportunity to pursue those careers in politics, business, etc. that favored JDs but didn't require actual lawyering for substantially less cost.

The end result, hopefully, is that law schools will have to start competing with undergraduate colleges for those job markets and, in turn, will no longer be able to sell kids on the garbage line of "even if you're not a lawyer, it's still worth going to law school!"  And maybe, just maybe, if that invisible hand of capitalism starts kicking in, it will dramatically undercut law school admissions.

Eventually, though, if this BA in Law catches on, it's going to dramatically change the nature of the profession by tearing it right down the middle.  Two classes of law practitioners should emerge.  Those who can do everything but actual court stuff and those who do court stuff.  Which, really, is sort of how it works now, just those that don't practice in courts are called "junior associates" and they're dramatically overpaid and overworked and, since firms are paying them a ridiculous amount to work ridiculous hours, they don't need many and the job supply suffers. A lesser law degree creates to ability to hire more people, cheaper, and give them more reasonable work loads since they can afford to work for less with less debt.

Associates 123-147, I'm going to need that Henderson brief by the end of the day.
This, then, is where things will get wonky.  If the Bachelor's of Law becomes common place again, it's going to force law schools to do something beyond what the bachelor's programs are doing.  Like, maybe, just maybe, teaching people how to actually practice law.  Or else, law schools are going to dry up so much that there might actually be, and I know this sounds weird, a shortage of attorneys that can actually practice law.  That will lead, in the short term, to salary inflation and, in the long term, the bars potentially expanding to allow law bachelor's to sit.

In the end, this new degree represents the first step in one of two possible futures for the legal profession.  Either a world where law schools adapt and the grunt legal work is done by lower-paid BAs who can afford to work for less because they aren't drowning in debt along side higher paid JDs who finally can make enough again to justify the debt they accumulated.  Or else a world where law schools fail to adapt and the JD essentially dies out, making undergraduate degrees that standard for the profession which becomes universally more fluid of a market with lower salaries and lower entry costs.

In either case, the University of Arizona has fired the first shot in a revolution of the legal field as we know it.  And, while it's going to kill the nature of the trade as it stands, maybe, just maybe, the profession will make economic sense again because of it.  In the meantime, though, buyer bewared for anyone who wants to test out this new future.  Maybe get a philosophy degree at the same time.  You know, to fall back on.

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