The New York Times featured an excellent news story Sunday by David Segal on the costly white elephant that is legal education in America. He describes how law school is expensive because of government-enforced accreditation standards that prevent law schools from containing costs even if they wanted to (and in truth, most law schools are all too happy to jack up their costs and pass them on to law students and consumers of legal services): “the lack of affordable law school options, scholars say, helps explain why so many Americans don’t hire lawyers” when they genuinely need legal assistance or advice. One reason for that is that lawyers who incur a fortune in student loans need to bring (or defend) big-ticket lawsuits — even socially destructive lawsuits — to pay off their loans, instead of providing badly needed legal advice and assistance to people of modest means, who can pay less, even though handling their unmet legal needs would be much more meaningful work for conscientious lawyers. (Certain types of lawsuits are favored by one-way fee-shifting statutes that encourage trial lawyers to bring those particular types of lawsuits, even when the entity being sued is probably innocent.)
The article debunks the self-serving claim of the chairman of the ABA’s legal education section that onerous accreditation standards are necessary to give students “what they have a right to receive in terms of education” and “protect the public.” It examines the experiences of a start up law school in Tennessee, the Duncan School of Law, which is seeking ABA accreditation. The school must have an unnecessarily big library and professors with tenure and time to write law review articles. These requirements enrich law professors at the expense of their students and the public. So, as a couple of former law deans tell Segal, the professors exert their power through the accreditation process to maintain the status quo. In the end, the Duncan School of Law’s advocates had to fly to a beachfront Ritz-Carlton in Puerto Rico to meet with the ABA to make a 15-minute argument for provisional accreditation. The ABA’s questions showed they were interested in the lawyer market in east Tennessee, suggesting that lowering clients’ costs mattered less to them than threatening lawyers’ income — an anti-competitive animus against new, low-cost law schools.
In an earlier article, Segal suggested a broad reform of law school curriculum, to replace irrelevant legal theory with practical training on how to be a lawyer. He chronicled how new associates at a law firm couldn’t answer the basic question, “when you close a merger, how does that deal get done?” (The answer was to draft a certificate of merger and file it with the secretary of state.) The article attributed that failure partly to the legal inexperience of law professors, illustrated by a 2010 study that found that the average amount of practical legal experience among law school faculty was only one year, and nearly half of the faculty members had never practiced law.
Law schools know all about the tough conditions that await graduates . . . But almost all the cachet in legal academia goes to professors who produce law review articles, which gobbles up huge amounts of time and tuition money. The essential how-tos of daily practice are a subject that many in the faculty know nothing about — by design. One 2010 study of hiring at top-tier law schools since 2000 found that the median amount of practical experience was one year, and that nearly half of faculty members had never practiced law for a single day. If medical schools took the same approach, they’d be filled with professors who had never set foot in a hospital.
As I noted earlier in The New York Times,
I learned about trendy ideological fads and feminist and Marxist legal theory while at Harvard Law School. But I did not learn many basic legal principles, such as in contract law and real estate law, until I took a commercial bar-exam preparation course after law school. Getting rid of the requirement that students attend law school before taking the bar exam would save many students a fortune in student loan debt. It would also force law schools to improve their courses to attract students who now have no choice but to attend.
In short, there is simply no reason to require people to attend law school before sitting for the bar exam. As law professor Paul Campos notes, legal education is a rip-off, since the typical law professor “knows nothing about being a lawyer. Hence, he must bullshit — he does not lie to his students about how to be a lawyer (doing so would require him to know how to be a lawyer, while attempting to deceive his students regarding the substance of that knowledge); rather, he ‘talks without knowing what he is talking about,’” when it comes to discussing the legal system or how to be a lawyer.
Law schools’ lack of interest in preparing students to be lawyers is illustrated by Tulane’s recent decision to give a murderer a scholarship to attend its law school, even though he most likely will never be admitted to the Bar given his criminal record. Law schools lie about whether graduates find jobs: two law schools are being sued for fraudulent placement data. Law schools have increased tuition by nearly 1,000 percent since 1960 in real terms.
Meanwhile, student loan debt is rising at an exponential, ever-increasing rate, harming students’ ability to buy homes (and thus, the housing market), and increasing federal spending on student loans is driving up college tuition and also harming the economy in other ways.