Speed Link—Future of Legal Education Symposium Portrayed as Waste of Time

Katherine Mangan, “As They Ponder Reforms, Law Deans Find Schools ‘Remarkably Resistant to Change’” in The Chronicle of Higher Education

A while back J-Dog of Restoring Dignity to the Law informed readers of a symposium on the future of legal education (his response is here), and the Chronicle discusses its results.

“Putting one professor in front of a large group of students is very efficient.” Clinical classes and simulations, which require low student-to-faculty ratios, cost more, [UC Irvine Dean Irwin Chemerinsky] said…Asked by an audience member how the school could afford to do that, he answered, “It starts with having to charge ridiculous levels of tuition.” Annual tuition and fees at Irvine total just over $40,000 for California residents and $50,000 for out-of-state students.

The problem I have with hands-on training is that it’s a lot easier to have a boss teach someone this type of stuff on the job. In other words, no amount of clinical training will create jobs. The word I bet wasn’t uttered here? Apprenticeship (or “articling” in Canada and outside North America). But that would mean shutting down law schools, which the deans probably didn’t want to consider.

Mr. Matasar took issue with the latter charge [that law schools churn out too many ill-prepared lawyers and mislead students about their job prospects with inflated placement statistics]. “There’s a common myth that law schools are engaged in the business of lying to people to get them to come to law school,” he said. If it were “some giant conspiracy” by law deans, “that would suggest we’re all a bunch of immoral, unethical, and terrible people, and we’re not.”

Law students know what they’re getting into when they sign promissory notes for their student loans, and they have no doubt read the many blistering critiques questioning the value of a law degree, he said.

Yes and no. True, law schools aren’t moustache-twirling grifters selling bridges. But they’re not guileless suburban preschools either. They freely acknowledge that they’re overcharging students relative to what the market can return for them, and they frequently admit that tuition hikes are for prestige, i.e. they’re valueless. If law schools know that they’re not providing value, then they’re accepting federal debt money in bad faith (private lenders had to warp the lending laws to their advantage, and that’s moot now with the advent of Grad PLUS loans). Title IV of the Higher Education Act is meant to help students gain a higher standard of living via education—not allow higher educators to charge whatever they feel like. Also,we shouldn’t need scambloggers to trash law schools’ for their excesses and distorted employment advertising, and I’m sure some would retire if disclosures were more accurate. Then again, there’d be fewer law schools as a consequence. So long as law schools treat the federal student loan system as an entitlement, they deserve every savaged toilet Third Tier Reality hurls at them.

Legal education does cost too much, Mr. Matasar said, mainly because it is “grossly inefficient.” Schools could cut costs by stratifying—offering, as a friend characterized it to him, a “Motel 6″ education with few bells and whistles, in which practicing lawyers teach many of the courses, as well as a “Ritz-Carlton” version taught by full-time, tenure-track professors. Neighboring schools could share library, faculty, and other resources, he said, adding, “Does every law school need an expert in the law of Timbuktu?”

This doesn’t quite contradict Dean Chemerinsky’s point about efficiency, and Dean Matasar is largely right. The problem though isn’t just that legal education isn’t “unbundled,” it’s also too large and the educators don’t take on the financial risk of their students’ failures. If they’re interested in cutting costs, schools could also not paying instructors so much.

[S]everal speakers…argued that accreditation rules set by the American Bar Association discourage innovation.

Yup. I wonder if anyone pointed out that Dean Matasar has disagreed with Dean Jay Conison (also present and of the ABA’s Standards Committee) that the changes in the ABA’s accreditation standards won’t lower costs. That would’ve been an interesting exchange.

Many students entering law school today won’t earn enough to make their investment pay off, [former Northwestern Dean David Van Zandt] said, adding that under the current system, going to law school makes economic sense only if a graduate earns a starting salary of at least $66,000 a year.

It’s more than $66,000 per year as Herwig Schlunk calculates. Also, again, if the deans know their model is failing students today, they shouldn’t be taking the money, and on a moral level they shouldn’t accept private loans either. They should take on their students’ financial risks and should be arguing for student debt reform for existing debtors. If they were truly virtuous they’d think of ways to rehabilitate the Lost Generation to the law. The Chronicle article didn’t discuss this, and I suspect that’s because such a discussion never occurred.

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2 Responses

  1. You need to read http://balkin.blogspot.com/2010/11/my-deans-vision-speech.html

    Only a start, obviously, but the real issue is that no one wants to provide the necessary skills training to young law students, yet they all need it.

    Just remember that the qualifications to be a law professor and the qualifications to be a one year associate (starting from a judicial clerkship rather than one year of actual firm experience) are exactly the same.

    Ask yourself what you would trust a one year associate to do unsupervised …

  2. “True, law schools aren’t moustache-twirling grifters selling bridges. ”

    Yes, they are. They just have degrees, fancy titles, nice offices, and a massive amount of social capital.

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