Sunday, January 23, 2011
A recent New York Times story about highly leveraged law grads unable to find work has focused more attention on the need for law schools to offer a more practical education. Granted, all the skills training in the world won't help students find jobs if there simply aren't enough to go around. That aside, schools should be doing whatever they can to help students hit the ground running upon graduation - that's what employers want and it's also what students will need if they plan to hang a shingle, either by choice or circumstance.
If you're a dean, though, where do you get the money to pay for more skills training? Generally speaking, skills training (e.g., legal writing and clinical programs) is expensive by law school staffing standards because it involves small classes that allow teachers to offer close supervision and lots of feedback. A doctrinal teacher, on the other hand, lectures to 100 or more students at once (it's the high teacher-student ratio inherent in doctrinal teaching that makes law schools "cash cows" for the rest of the university). To do skills training right, you've got to hire more teachers which costs money and I don't see deans spending that money now. Faculty salaries are already the biggest item in the law school budget. On the other hand, skills profs earn the lowest salaries on the faculty. Sometimes those salaries are less than a third of what the doctrinal superstars make who publish a lot.
No one would be calling law schools a "scam" or a high priced lottery (as the New York Times recently did) if tuition was only $10k per year. Schools can't, economically or ethically, raise tuition to pay for more skills teachers in order to provide more personalized, practical instruction.
Add to the mix the fact that the ABA is presently considering removing the tenure requirement from the accreditation standards in order to give deans more flexibility when it comes to faculty staffing. That doesn't portend well for skills faculty who are often considered more expendable than doctrinal faculty.
Unless there's a realignment of economic priorities away from scholarship and towards skills training, I don't see students getting a more practical legal education anytime soon. To be honest, I don't see that kind of re-prioritizing coming on a large scale anytime soon either. Scholarship rules the roost within the legal academy and that's not likely to change. It's certainly less likely to change among the elite law schools (and those that aspire to be them) unless pressure is applied by employers, large donors, or other outside interests. Perhaps it's more likely that we'll see some re-prioritizing among the lower ranked schools as they try to market themselves to prospective law students as more employer-friendly institutions.
To say the least, finding a way to pay for the additional skills training that everyone says law schools need to offer is going to be a challenge for administrators and faculty in the years ahead.