Abbey Links–Dean Farmer of Rutgers on the “Real Value” of Legal Education

Responding to its recent article the New Jersey Star-Ledger granted Rutgers dean John Farmer Jr. space to write, “The Real Value of a Legal Education.”

Honestly, I couldn’t follow most of this piece.  Here’s my best stab.  Dean Farmer rhetorically asks, “What, exactly, is this enterprise of legal education about anyway?”  He answers:

But the real value of legal education is not, and never has been, primarily economic.  It’s not about money; it’s about freedom.  Legal education gives students what 99.9 percent of humanity yearns for but is denied: control over one’s own life.  It is a license to make of your life what you may, to live the American dream to its fullest…Lawyers express their individual freedom by helping other people protect theirs. There is no more honorable calling, and no better or more important education.

Yeah, as I said this is difficult for me to follow.  Why?  I confess this blog takes a positivist perspective on legal education’s value: Even during the 2000s, many graduates have failed to find employment that pays enough to make the investment of going to law school worthwhile.  This doesn’t mean they regret it, or that they shouldn’t’ve gone in the first place, but that too few perspective students understand these clear facts.  Consequently, discussion about the freedom a legal education provides is irrelevant as far as this blog is concerned.  The “real value of a legal education” must be assessed with the full facts of the tuition bubble in mind.  Also, 99.9%?  0.1% of humanity amounts to fewer than 10 million people.  We’re not that benighted, and one can have control over one’s life without going to law school.  Just sayin’.

Other highlights:

Legal education is not, as the comments of some would suggest, an entitlement program.

I define an “entitlement program” as a schedule of benefits provided by the community to the individual as a matter of right, even if the individual did not or even cannot contribute back to the community.  The vast majority of lawyers paid to go to law school, including taking on non-dischargeable debt.  Saying to those who’ve paid into a program that will produce few benefits for them isn’t so much an entitlement argument as much as a caveat emptor one, which you’re free to agree with or not depending on your views of ethics in contracts.  My opinion is that because legal practice is a tightly regulated market, incoming practitioners should have extra privileges over individuals entering into free market contracts, e.g. buying toothpaste.  If Crest wants to tell me its anti-cavity toothpaste works better than baking soda, I’ll buy it caveat emptor even if Colgate was better than both all along.  I don’t think law schools should be held to so low a standard because they’re not free market actors.

The day when students could graduate from law school with heads full of theory, but no clue as to how to practice law, is over. Once a solid grounding in theory is provided, the integration of practical skills is appropriate, given that many law school graduates will have to assume greater responsibilities earlier in their careers.

I’m surprised to hear this from a law school administrator.  Practical skills are best learned in practice and not under sterile conditions of law school classrooms.  Dean Farmer isn’t arguing this, but if practice is so important, why not do away with clinics and internships and instead require apprentice training rather than classroom training?  Once practice is more important than theory, one wonders what the real value of legal education is.

Both law students and law schools, moreover, will have to think creatively about career options both within and outside the practice of law.

The versatile J.D. argument surfaces from the loch.  I seriously doubt the juris doctor was created to be the be-all end-all certificate of analytic reasoning.  I’ve seen no evidence otherwise, but my guess is it was designed to inform other legal practitioners (and clients) that the J.D. was smart enough to enter a courtroom and not make a complete ass of himself (yes it was all men at the time) in front of those present.  Moreover, the flexible juris doctor runs into the problem of supplemental knowledge.  Sure a J.D.-M.D. knows much about medical malpractice, but how many people went out to earn JDs and use them only minimally in their current positions?  I have no idea, and neither does the ABA or anyone else for that matter.  If the J.D. is so flexible, it should be an undergraduate-level degree.

In retrospect, we were spoiled by the prosperity of the large law firms, and the easy career pipeline and high salaries they offered…[T]he debt students were forced to incur would be easy to manage with the high salaries recent graduates were commanding.

I don’t know Dean Farmer’s timeframe here, but starting salaries have been highly bimodal since the late 1990s/early 2000s.  Most graduates were not making biglaw salaries, which is why I see the problem as dire as I do.

As a consequence, many law schools became “cash cows” supporting programs in their larger university communities.  The focus shifted to revenue; economic issues came to dominate.

In other words, law schools had no control over their tuitions and what they were spent on all along?  What does it tell you about the real value of a legal education when its price is determined ad hoc by unrelated administrators who may or may not care about graduates’ employment and starting salaries?  Now you know why I avoid commentary on “freedom” and stick to the numbers when I discuss legal education.

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