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Lawyers and entrepreneurs

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The Times has a story on attempts by law schools to address the crisis in legal hiring via curricular reform:

On a spring afternoon at Michigan State University, 15 law students are presenting start-up proposals to a panel of legal scholars and entrepreneurs and an audience of fellow students. The end-of-semester event is one part seminar and one part “Shark Tank” reality show.

The companies the students are describing would be very different from the mega-firms that many law students have traditionally aspired to work for, and to grow wealthy from. . .

A few of them talk of outsourced services for larger law firms. Karen Francis-McWhite pitches one to help homesteaders claim properties for their own. Another would help immigrants file their taxes, an essential but frightening step to gaining citizenship. The tagline, delivered by its advocate, Giavanna Reeves: “Filing taxes should not make you feel blue when you’ve got a green card in line.”

The Entrepreneurial Lawyering Startup Competition, a showcase of the university’s Reinvent Law Laboratory, is not an activity many practicing lawyers would recognize. But it might be the kind of broadened curriculum many of today’s students need.

This kind of program at least recognizes implicitly that it doesn’t make any sense for MSU’s law school to be based on a model in which its graduates go on to work for high-paying large law firms, since almost none of them do (14 of 301 graduates in last year’s graduating class got big law jobs. It’s too bad MSU’s tuition structure doesn’t acknowledge this reality).

It also signals that some law faculty now realize that a lot of their graduates won’t have traditional legal careers at all, high-paying or otherwise. That (the recognition) is a good thing, but curricular reforms of this type can play at best only a very minor role in ameliorating the problems our graduates face.

Turning part of the law school curriculum into a quasi-MBA program doesn’t do anything about the central problem, which is that law schools charge way too much and graduate way too many people. And trying to train law graduates to be entrepreneurs is a classically American response to the structural challenges to traditional ways of life created by changing economic conditions.

The difficulties with this response are that the whole point of law school has always been to qualify — if not actually to train — people to be a very specific sort of entrepreneur, that is, someone who runs a business that sells legal services. And the fundamental problem remains that demand for that kind of business is flat or declining, and/or is being met more and more by low-cost alternatives to traditional legal services, as Bill Henderson points out in the Times article itself (I’m using “demand” here in the sense of people being willing and able to pay for such services, rather than in the sense that many law professors use the word, which features a concept of demand that doesn’t take into account the “able” part of the definition).

People generally don’t go to law school because they’re “entrepreneurial” in some more general sense: indeed, it would be more accurate to say that they go because they’re not entrepreneurial in a more general way. And it would be even more accurate to say that just about the least entrepreneurial class of people this side of trust fund babies are law professors themselves, since the job selects for personality types that make Dilbert look like Steve Jobs.

How a bunch of mostly old people who have spent their lives polishing apples and coloring inside the lines are supposed to turn the kind of mostly young people who go to law school today into disruptive innovators, sending gusts of creative destruction across the legal economic landscape, remains more than a little mysterious.

. . . In comments, Fortunado points toward an even more fundamental difficulty, which is that the vast majority of entrepreneurial ventures fail even in good economic times. Of course the whole point of getting a law degree, from a strictly economic perspective, is that it allows one to acquire a license, that is, a serious barrier to entry, that is supposed to put one at a competitive advantage relative to “mere” entrepreneurs.

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