I’m intrigued by Arizona State University’s plans to open its own law firm. More accurately, I have different takes depending on which of my moods is prevailing at a given point.
The Optimist appreciates the attempt to solve two problems at once. The first is the number of recent law school graduates carrying sizable debt and having trouble finding work in a tough job market. The second is the number of people who would benefit from legal services yet are unable to afford them. Bringing the two groups together, through programs featuring newly minted lawyers supervised by more seasoned practitioners, would provide valuable hands-on experience while at the same time making access to legal assistance for underserved populations.
It is possible that the younger participants will use programs such as ASU’s as a springboard to more lucrative employment, just as many Teach for America alumni go on to pursue professional options more lucrative than teaching. But that possibility doesn’t strike me as a problem, as even short-term participation could provide considerable benefits for all involved. (Indeed, the pilot program at Univ. of California Hastings College of the Law has been dubbed Lawyers for America.) Future corporate lawyers might derive some benefit from exposure to a different segment of the legal world, with clients presenting issues that corporate lawyers don’t typically encounter and compelling attorneys to view legal disputes through different lenses.
The Skeptic wonders whether rates will be set at a level that allows markets to clear. The ASU program plans to charge its clients half of the region’s going hourly rate of $250. Far be it from me to badmouth 50% off anything, but how many people are likely to decide that they can afford legal services at $125/hr., but not at $250? If the number is small, then underserved communities will remain underserved.
The Cynic sees a program that will help the school boost its placement rates, thereby boosting its position in the U.S. News rankings. Schools with similar programs might also be looking to counter the narrative of a tight job market that has contributed to the decline in the number of applicants to law school. Increases in tuition revenue, from students reassured that some legal work will be available upon graduation, might very well exceed the costs of running these programs.
So which of these accounts sounds most convincing, or is there some merit to each?