Spring 2012 Dean’s Message
Dear Friends of Santa Clara Law:
There is considerable public controversy and speculation about two intersecting arguments in legal education and law practice. One asserts that legal education lacks transparency to its most important constituencies, and ignores seismic changes in the legal profession. The second claims there is a paradigm shift in the work of lawyers and the business plans for many large corporate and business law firms.
There are legitimate factual bases for these contentions, as the legal profession and legal education have changed dramatically in the past three years and are expected to continue to do so. For example, in the past two years, the total volume of applications to American law schools has declined by almost 25 percent. Law school tuition continues to increase, as has the average student indebtedness to attend law school. There are congressional inquiries into the accuracy of law school reported data about job placement for graduates, and a few disgruntled graduates have maintained consumer class actions against their law school for alleged misrepresentation of employment data. Moreover, on the employment front, the legal profession lost more than 12,000 jobs in 2008. Law firms began to defer starting dates for recent graduates, and many job offers went away completely. Since the beginning of the financial downturn, many firms have accelerated their switch away from lockstep compensation and are creating new competency-based models.
In the light of this, two fundamental questions arise: Is there a contemporary case for attending law school? What do these trends mean for Santa Clara Law?
First, I think that the case for going to law school today is as good as it was when I went to law school 40 years ago. There are, and will continue to be, professional career opportunities for today’s graduates, and these will increasingly include career paths in business, in-house, and government. Further, the country still needs many more lawyers to provide legal services for the poor and to serve nonprofits and other public service sectors. While a decline in equity partners is expected, there will continue to be opportunities in large firms in other roles and in midsize firms, especially as a significant group of baby boomers begin to retire.
Plus, becoming a lawyer continues to excite the interests of bright, morally engaged young people. In recent surveys, young lawyers report high satisfaction with their decision to go to law school and with the work they are doing. Many say they were attracted to the study of law and to the legal profession for the same reasons that my generation was—it is a “people business,” it involves complex work with and around other smart people, and lawyers have the tools to help others and to solve problems.
However, great challenges remain. Today’s law students need skills that were not in curricula 40 years ago—and are not in many curricula today. Tomorrow’s legal workplaces are demanding bright graduates who not only know the law and have good work habits—they also are requiring that young lawyers are trained to interview clients, handle a simple mediation, demonstrate fundamental trial advocacy skills, know how to manage projects and work on teams, and have leadership skills.
With respect to the question of a paradigm shift, Santa Clara Law is actively preparing for the current and anticipated changes in many law practice and legal services sectors. We are finetuning our strategic plan to help us address change. We are committed to maximizing career opportunities for our graduates by expanding experiential learning and emphasizing a broader range of professional skills critical to contemporary law practice.
The Law Career Services Office aggressively reaches out to both graduating students and alumni with career planning strategies and job search assistance. Many of you—our graduates and friends—have stepped up to create opportunities for externships, act as mentors to students, provide job leads, and even recruit new hires. You bring our alumni network to life, and we thank you for your support and assistance.
I am pleased to note that the legal employment market, especially in Silicon Valley, seems to be rebounding, albeit slowly. As I contemplate changes yet ahead, I am confident that our next generation of graduates will continue our legacy of service to all sectors of the profession and our communities. Thanks for doing your part to make that possible!
DONALD J. POLDEN