Open Source Law School?

A few weeks ago, Richard Vedder asked whether we could take advantage of all these technological advances of the last half-century and sell education for a fraction of the cost we do today:

[W]hy doesn’t someone—say, the Gates Foundation—hire 100 or so stellar professors in 20 disciplines to offer perhaps 150 to 200 absolutely superb courses online, with testing administered by an outside agency (say, the ACT, SAT, or Underwriter’s Laboratories)? Even paying each professor $100,000 per course and allowing for 100 percent overhead, this would cost $30- to $40-million. There would be some expenses for administration and a need to redo lectures every few years, but the whole thing is within the financial capacity of several foundations in the private sector. The upshot would be that a student taking about 32 of the courses would have the equivalent of a B.A. degree, and it could be offered to the student free (with modest per-student private or government subsidies) or at very modest cost.

In pre-Higher Education Act America the only playback devices most Americans had were phonographs. Vinyl might be nice for audiophiles (I can’t tell the difference), but it’s obviously too cumbersome for distance education. With the advent of YouTube? Different story. Yet would Vedder’s idea work for legal education?

Certainly. Legal ed is a ripe target for this kind of innovation and deservedly so. Much of the coursework is geared towards rote memorization of theories of liability and defenses identical to portions of a bar exam, and even legal writing courses can be taught remotely (though I have a special place in my heart for legal writing instructors because their courses are down-to-earth). Moreover, it would be fairly cheap to do as well given how glacially many substantive areas of the law move. Anything more would require tailoring the lectures to state-specific circumstances.

When proposals to make the legal profession cheaper and more accessible emerge, one common criticism is that it’ll open the floodgates to even more unnecessary lawyers. Such concerns miss the point. Our priorities lie first in the consumers of legal services and second in ensuring that practitioners are educated as efficiently as possible so that they can leave the law easily if it’s not a good fit for them or if the economy tanks. I can’t speak to our success at the first, but we’ve failed at the second. Ideally, experience in the profession would precede education, which is a substantive change to the legal education process I believe is necessary notwithstanding its current problems. Supply and demand will correct the overproduction problem in the way that it does not today.

The other counterargument is that people who go to conventional ABA law schools are more likely to pass bar exams and be more qualified attorneys than those who don’t. However, the University of La Verne experience suggests enormous selection bias is at work: those who have the mental aptitude to pass a bar exam are the most likely to go to a highly-regarded ABA law school, for they earn prestige admitting those students and the students receive a prestigious diploma in return. I may test this in the future, but contrary to its intent, the LSAT appears to be an excellent predictor of bar exam success, which if true suggests that lesser-regarded law schools know or should know that they are admitting students who have a poor chance of success. The open source law school model helps prevent this immense waste of time and resources, but we should recognize up front that this model would likely wipe out numerous law schools. I’ll defer to Macchiarola and Abraham’s response to that criticism.

No one should be overly sympathetic to the plight of these schools; expensive, lower-tier schools in their current form never represented a good deal for non-upper income students to begin with. (130)

Don’t expect the tenured faculty of the AALS to endorse this idea anytime soon, but it’s certainly better than shoveling taxpayer dollars to universities.


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