BOSTON (CBS) - Are law schools outdated institutions, churning out more attorneys than the current legal job market can handle?
That's the crux of the question that the Massachusetts Bar Association has asked its new task force on law schools to look into.
The group, which is gathering its lawyer members, will examine "the ongoing relevance of law schools and the cost of law school, (and whether) we should rethink the three-year model," said new MBA president Richard Campbell of Boston-based Campbell Trial Lawyers, who spearheaded the effort.
The task force is expected to produce a report next March.
Campbell has strong opinions about the law school model, especially in light of the current job market.
Last year's law school graduates had an overall employment rate of 87.6 percent, the lowest rate since 1996, according to a report in June from the National Association for Law Placement Inc. (NALP) in Washington, D.C.
Many media outlets have dubbed long-term unemployed lawyers the "lost generation."
"The current system doesn't make any sense," said Campbell.
"There's something seriously wrong with it in terms of cost, timing of the bar exam and the amount of time necessary to get a law degree. It begs the question, how do the law schools justify charging these students $150K and leaving them in the lurch?"
Campbell is not the first member of the bar to direct blame onto law schools for the "lost generation" of unemployed young lawyers.
Indeed, several law schools across the country have been sued for allegedly providing misleading employment information.
Boston-area law schools have become reluctant to provide employment rates for alumni.
Law schools have also been criticized for continuing to churn out a high number of graduates.
The MBA tapped co-chairs for the task force: Eric Parker, managing partner and personal injury lawyer of Parker Scheer and Radha Natarajan of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
While the MBA has no legal power, depending on the findings it could propose new legislation or make recommendations to the American Bar Association, which doles out law school accreditation.
"I think it's an overstatement to suggest there is a lost generation (of lawyers)," said New England Law Boston Dean John O'Brien, who is also the chairman of the American Bar Association's Section on Legal Education and Admissions, although he did not speak on behalf of the ABA. "It's more accurate to suggest that people have to work harder to find that first job and they may not be able to get their dream job the first time."
New England Law Boston, which has class sizes of about 300, said 84 percent of the graduating Class of 2010 was employed or enrolled in a full-time advanced degree program within nine months of graduation.
While the job market has weakened, the number of first-time bar exam-takers has stayed about level for the past 10 years.
This year 2,303 applicants sat for the bar for the first time. (No pass rate is available yet.)
In 2010, 2,338 people sat for the bar with 88.2 percent passing.
In 2001, 2,360 people sat for the bar, with a pass rate of 80.6.
While the numbers are roughly the same, last year's pass rate of 88.2 was the second highest it's been in a decade, behind 2008's, when the rate was 89 percent.
"The issues...are ones that we are all struggling with," said Boston University School of Law Dean Maureen O'Rourke.
"What we're trying to understand is, has there been a structural change in the profession or is this a blip?"
In response to the question of whether law schools are producing too many lawyers, O'Rourke noted that the school enrolled 240 first-year law students, down from last year's 265.
"Before you conclude there are too many lawyers, you have to ask the question of whether there are any underserved markets?" said O'Rourke.
O'Rourke also said that the idea of a law program that's shorter than three years "merits close scrutiny."
Vincent Rougeau, Boston College Law School's dean, agrees that the law schools deserve the scrutiny.
"This current crisis is a call for all law schools to look more closely at what they do and how they do it," said Rougeau.
"I think there will be too many lawyers when everyone who needs legal services has access to a lawyer. The real question is how to bring graduates to the people who need their services ... We can't have a profession that depends on large firms hiring law students."
BC Law School is currently looking at adding more experiential learning and classroom simulations. Last year's graduating class at BC was 285 students.
"I would not think our classes will get any bigger, they might get smaller," said Rougeau.
Lisa van der Pool of the Boston Business Journal reports
Even if classes shrink further, current and aspiring law students must be made aware of their true job prospects, said Brion Bickerton, legal hiring consultant for The Bickerton Group in Boston.
"Are (law schools) producing too many lawyers? The answer is yes if they have as their objective making sure those law students find employment as lawyers," said Bickerton.
An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that New England Law Boston declined to provide employment data.
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