Wonkblog Confused on Two-Year-Instruction Legal Education

In a confusing article titled, “Obama thinks law school should be two years. The British think it should be one.The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog tries to weigh the merits and costs of reducing law school to two years.

First of all, the recent commentary on the topic might be unclear, but there’s a difference between a two-year law degree and changing the third year to a clerking experience. In the former, students pay for two years, graduate in two years, and hit the market in two years. In the latter, students pay to study in school for two years, pay to work for a year in exchange for experience, credits, and potential future job opportunities, and then get their J.D.s. I believe President Obama’s comments referred to the latter, not the former. As far as I can imagine, the president’s proposal still requires law students to pay their law schools for the third year, almost certainly wiping out any monetary benefit students obtain and not reducing their debt.

(There’re other options, like an accelerated two-year J.D. program, which crams the same amount of coursework from three years into two at the same price, or merging a year of college with a year of law school—which is cheaper in total higher education cost—but is otherwise no different from the current system.)

That having been said, the Wonkblog article tries to navigate the proposals to restructure legal education like they’re Scylla and Charybdis when it’s actually in deep, calm waters. Here are four points I think it’s making:

(1)  Apprenticeship doesn’t work.

From February 2007 to February 2013, the California bar exam was taken 82,154 times, and only 43 of those (0.05 percent) were attempts by people in the apprentice program [LSTB: sample size problem?]. The pass rate for non-apprentice test-takers was 50.5 percent; for graduates of ABA-approved law schools, it was 60.2 percent. For apprentices, however, it was 27.9 percent. That may be because those who take that track are just less capable than those going to law schools, but it could also suggest that apprenticeships aren’t great preparation.

No, it suggests that people choose their path to the bar based on their aptitude for doing well on standardized tests, not whether law school increases the likelihood of bar passage. In terms of opportunity costs alone, someone who tends to do very well on standardized tests (the LSAT) is probably much better off going to an ABA-accredited law school than apprenticing. Elite ABA law schools broker prestigious entry-level positions to their students. (The calculus probably work differently for non-trads.)

The California example is instructive because it shows that even when given alternative licensing options, which in many cases are probably much better for the types of students who attend non-elite ABA law schools, employers or lawyer job applicants decline to cut out the law school middlemen. In short, it’s neither an accident nor a weakness with apprenticeship that people who do well on the LSAT apply to law school rather than work their way into the profession. The problem is that the ABA system offers students a nationally accepted credential and more employment opportunities at a significantly higher price.

(2)  Reducing class time introduces a thorny problem of what courses must be cut due to the rigid requirements of ABA accreditation standard 302. For instance, students won’t be able to take electives that help them specialize.

The problems with this concern are (a) specialty courses don’t create jobs, and (b) bar exam-fare courses can probably be taught more rapidly to people who are good at taking standardized tests.

(3)  Shortening the amount of instruction time will reduce students’ opportunities to learn practical skills.

So it matters what exactly we’d be trying to solve by cutting the third year of law school. If the goal is to make legal education more practice-based, there are ways to do that while preserving the third year, and those ought to be compared to on-the-job training alternatives.

Here I think Wonkblog is simply confusing the two-year J.D. with the restructured-third-year J.D., which, it should be added, won’t create jobs.

(4)  The cost/benefit problem of law school is overstated because the J.D. premium is large, and Grad PLUS loans plus IBR make law school affordable. Nevertheless, it’s probably better to eliminate the graduate-level legal education entirely because it works (for unstated reasons) in the United Kingdom.

And if the goal is to reduce the initial cost of law school, that’s a solution to a problem that’s much less severe than many make it out to be. The returns on law school are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over someone’s life, and between limitless grad PLUS loans and income-based repayment, financing the initial investment is getting easier.

Maybe the answer isn’t cutting the length of postgrad law degrees, but getting rid of them.

I don’t think Wonkblog understands the argument in  “Growth in a Time of (The Economic Value of Law School) Debt” by Reinhart, Rogoff, Simkovic, and McIntyre. Its entire point is to justify the time and money spent in law school and cannot be interpreted to advocate shortening it to the undergraduate level. (And I thought those of us who “make out the initial cost of law school as a problem” are the ones who supposedly didn’t read “Economic Value” and understand its subtleties…)

“Economic Value”‘s pure human capital formation theory of legal education argues that law school increases earnings in itself because all higher education increases earnings in itself, implying that reducing law school by a year or to the undergraduate level will reduce the “premium” to legal education. Getting rid of postgrad law degrees is a fine idea, but according to Simkovic’s and McIntyre’s theory, it will cut lawyers’ earnings and cost society the enormous benefits of the added years of law school instruction.

Like the authors of “Economic Value,” Wonkblog has never heard of signalling theory in higher education. Otherwise, it would realize that the problem is that so long as (a) employers have no incentive to cut out the law schools, (b) applicants believe they don’t have better options, and (c) we have the odious Grad PLUS loans (which Wonkblog apparently fails to realize enables tuition price increases), then restructuring legal education will neither reduce student debt nor create jobs.

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5 Responses

  1. I really fail to understand Matthews’ argument about apprenticeships not working. For purposes of the bar, sure. But then again, the next time a former prof of mine tells me that the bar is a great indicator of ability to practice law will be the first. In other words, what is good preparation for practice might not always mean it is good preparation for the bar.

    Also, this bit from another Matthews article is just mind-boggling:

    “But Simkovic and McIntyre demonstrate pretty convincingly that the case that way too many people are going to law school is, at best, speculative. It requires arguing that longstanding trends in earnings numbers are all of a sudden stopping because of the recession, without much evidence that a change that large is happening.”

    It’s mind boggling because in that article that argues law school is still worth it, it is noted that part of the problem with earnings figures for law grads is that they do not decouple earnings by profession or even necessity of bar passage, which is important to know given law school is a specialized education, and low wages (or even low employment) in that specialized field would greatly call into question the necessity of law school–at leas the three year program.

    • jurisdebtor,

      That other post of Matthews’ you cite highlights the “reporters vs. wonk bloggers” debate going on in media. Reporters say bloggers aren’t getting the whole story by not interviewing all the parties affected by an issue and don’t really understand the academic papers they’re reading. Wonk bloggers say reporters hype controversial issues (“Opinions about the shape of the world differ”) where none exists.

      For example, Mike Konczal wrote a few months ago that wonk bloggers (specifically those on Wonkblog) can and do avoid this problem by interviewing other academics, e.g. in the Reinhart/Rogoff flap. Unfortunately, Matthews hasn’t done that here. He conveyed academics’ findings uncritically because they’re math-heavy and contrarian. Not only is he obviously uninformed on substantive labor economics (e.g. no discussion of signaling theory for credentials), but he also can’t identify badly designed studies. Crucial issues like causation, the role of theory, good research design, etc. apparently elude him.

      An interest in data and charts isn’t remotely enough. Not by a long shot. Wonk bloggers need to have a crystal-clear, obsidian-sharp, rock-solid understanding of research methods, probably at the graduate level. This is why I usually skip wonk bloggers and get the dope straight from the academics themselves. They might be wrong too, but if I can’t trust wonk bloggers or reporters to tell me that, I’ll do it myself.

  2. I am glad Scylla and Charybdis where on my HS football team, and not the opponents.

    Matt, I love seeing you make these Wonker arguments into Swiss Cheese.

    Basics like Supply and Demand, Price increases due to Gov subsidy seem to escape many.

    Then when you figure out that all the DC staffers that have law degrees have Zero student loan debt and are unable to relate to any off this, and yeah it really hurts.

    I’d like to take a roll in the academic mud with Baumol’s cost disease, or Bowen’s Revenue Theory of college cost, but Upton Sinclair already explained why so many people in the Ivory Tower willingly ignore certain ideas.

    • “Wonker” arguments? I really hope you made that one up ’cause it’s inspired.

      I will totally coach you against Baumol’s cost disease. It’ll be like Rocky with purpose.

  3. ““Wonker” arguments? I really hope you made that one up ’cause it’s inspired.”

    Agreed.

    The Establishmentarian wanking wonkers at Wonkblog aren’t paid to challenge the DC/NYC “consensus” – they are paid to defend/promote it. (DC Problem? DC Solution – More Cowbell!!)

    DC/NYC isn’t interested in *curing* Baumol disease/Bennett hypothesis – they grow wealthy/powerful by *administering* it.

    “”It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    Indeed.

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