Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Law Schools"

From today's Wall Street Journal. Sounds a bit harsh, don't you think? One of the authors is a Professor McGinnis of Northwestern University School of Law.

Over three years, tuition at a law school can exceed $150,000. Even this princely sum does not capture the full cost. During the time spent at these schools, most students could have earned substantial income. A recent analysis by Herwig Schlunk of Vanderbilt University suggests that for bright students with attractive career opportunities, the total cost of law school is closer to $275,000.

The high cost of graduate legal education limits the supply of lawyers and leads to higher legal fees. And higher fees place legal services out of the reach of middle-income families at a time when increasing complexity demands more access to these services. In short, the current system leaves citizens underserved and young lawyers indebted.

Some have argued that to reduce costs states should simply drop their educational requirements, policing lawyer quality through bar exams, if at all. But the requirement of a legal education can serve important public needs.

First, most citizens, particularly the less educated, do not know much about law and have difficulty evaluating the skill of individual lawyers. Some education in law makes it more likely that a lawyer will be competent. Second, educated lawyers provide a public good. In the United States, most important political questions become legal questions. Educated lawyers can supply a deeper social understanding that informs political policy-making.

Here is a straightforward solution: States should permit undergraduate colleges to offer majors in law that will entitle graduates to take the bar exam. If they want to add a practical requirement, states could also ask graduates to serve one-year apprenticeships before becoming eligible for admission to the bar.

An undergraduate legal degree could be readily designed. A student could devote half of his course work to the major, which would allow him to approximate two years of legal study. There is substantial agreement in the profession that two years are enough to understand the essentials of the law—both the basics of our ancient common law and the innovations of our modern world. A one-year apprenticeship after graduation would allow young lawyers to replace the superfluous third year of law school with practical training.

This option would reduce the law school tuition to zero. And the three years of students going without income would be replaced by a year of paid apprenticeship and two years earning a living as a lawyer.

The idea of learning law as an undergraduate discipline is hardly untested. Great Britain, for instance, educates lawyers in college, not graduate school. These college-educated lawyers appear to provide legal services on par with those of their American colleagues.

In addition to reducing the cost of training a lawyer, an undergraduate law degree could facilitate innovation in legal teaching. Because an undergraduate major would be situated within a college of arts and sciences, it would be easier to provide an interdisciplinary education, mixing elements of social science and humanities with legal doctrine.

Law demands fluency in many such disciplines. For instance, the merits of a mass torts case may turn on statistical inferences. Students could integrate relevant courses in statistics, economics and psychology into their undergraduate program rather than trying to catch up in law school. Thus, an undergraduate legal education has the potential to produce better rounded, more capable lawyers.

Of course, encouraging colleges to offer undergraduate legal education would not prohibit law schools from continuing to offer the current, three-year J.D. program. The maturity and career change that this graduate option would provide would continue to benefit some students.

Further, the undergraduate option would improve graduate education by forcing law schools to justify their cost by offering additional benefits. LLM programs—which result in a master's degree—would also become more robust, as undergraduate-educated lawyers can earlier gain practical experience to better decide what specialty course to pursue. Overall, by increasing competition, an undergraduate law degree would increase diversity and quality in legal education.

But the great benefit of the undergraduate option would be lowering the cost of legal education, thus increasing the supply of lawyers willing to charge lower fees. Lower fees mean broader access for middle- and lower-income Americans. Ultimately, law exists to serve the public. Legal education needs to provide more diverse options to assure a more diverse bar and a better-served public.

Hat tip to the always gracious and debonair Professor Braccialarghe.



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