So I’m sure you’ve heard about the New York Times’ nicely scathing article about the dysfunction of legal education in the United States, and the utter unwillingness of law schools to teach lawyers how to lawyer. I enjoyed it thoroughly, especially the bit about how law professors look down their noses at practicing lawyers.

Their disdain for the actual practice of law would be amusing–if people weren’t being suckered into $150,000 of debt and led to believe they would learn at least a few skills they could use as working lawyers.

old law school library
Lawyer training methods and the books in this library are about the same age.

As you all know, I’m not a huge fan of the way law is practiced, but not because I don’t respect the job itself. I object to the nasty and dysfunctional way most lawyers treat themselves and their colleagues while doing their jobs.

A lot of the misery in law would be solved if students actually had some grasp of what they would be doing for most of their waking hours before they were totally committed to it through the debt of law school tuition. A first year heavy on practical application–like, here’s a situation, draft a contract for it–would help many aspiring lawyers decide that they would rather aspire to a root canal, on the whole. There are good meds available for that, and soon enough the pain recedes. Unlike the pain of being a lawyer when you can’t stand the actual work. That’s daily, unremitting misery, and anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs only do so much.

Not Just Law Schools

What the NYT missed was how BigLaw (and most other) firms aren’t actually doing any worthwhile training once new lawyers start working. The Drinker Biddle solution mentioned in the article–not letting first-year associates bill, and actually training them on useful crap like what document they need to draft to accomplish a merger–blew my mind. It’s a sad commentary on law firm culture that this is a revolutionary idea, but there it is. I would love to know what the participants in the program there actually learn, and whether they, the partners, and the clients are happy with it.

I have to say I’m just, oh, the slightest bit doubtful that many firms are going to embrace what sounds like a sensible solution. The billable hours fixation in BigLaw runs pretty deep.

And that’s a real shame if law firms pass by a chance to actually fix some of what makes law practice so miserable:

  • the constant re-inventing the wheel;
  • expecting perfection with no training or meaningful feedback; and
  • confining bright, talented, ambitious young graduates to mindless, grinding awfulness of document review and arcane research for years.

They’re left with few marketable legal skills a small firm could use or that they could use to set up their own practice, and end up feeling trapped. (They’re not, but I’ve written hundreds of posts about THAT.) The failure to train associates is a waste of human potential, and needlessly creates misery.

Stop Whining, and Try This Instead

If you’re an unhappy, young associate and my client, and thought you would be happy practicing law if you knew what the hell you were doing and had some challenge to your work, here’s what I’d coach you to do: Use your networking and research skills to connect with an actual Drinker, Biddle associate. Find out what their program is really like. Is it even half as good as the NYT article painted it? What are the pressures and downsides the article missed?

Then take the parts that seem to be working for them, and agitate like crazy at your own firm to start such a program. Give the partners lots of spreadsheets, graphs, etc. to make your case. You went to law school to learn how to persuade people, probably–so here’s a chance to practice that in a way that might help not just you, but many others in your same shoes. Heck, you might spark a wave of change. Sounds cool to me.

Even if you don’t get your firm to buy in, the experience will teach you some pretty good business skills that you can later market yourself with.

So what’s between you and taking some action to end your misery?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy lawyers to find interesting, creative solutions to improve their work and life. Find out what that’s like by scheduling a sample coaching session. Email her at today to schedule yours.