Tuesday, April 24, 2012
This week I'm planning to write about various widespread but in my view mistaken beliefs regarding the intensifying crisis in American legal education. I'm going to start with this one:
The biggest problem with American legal education is that it fails to produce practice-ready graduates.
This claim has been made by critics of the legal academic establishment for roughly a century now (every 15 years or so some sort of quasi-official report reiterates it). It was a topic of discussion at a law school symposium this weekend on the future of the legal profession, and is apparently a theme of Jim Molitenrno's forthcoming book, A Profession in Crisis, which argues that the fundamental problems with legal education today are in large part products of the fact that more than a century ago "medical schools decided that their mission would be to turn out doctors, while law schools decided that their mission would be to turn out law professors."
Now the claim that law schools remain largely indifferent to the fact that law school teaches law students almost nothing about the practice of law is itself quite true. What isn't the case is that this fact has in itself much to do with the increasingly unacceptable relationship between the cost of a law degree and the economic benefits it confers. Making graduates practice-ready is a fine idea in theory -- why else are law students going to law school anyway? -- but if such reforms do nothing about, or worse yet exacerbate, the crumbling cost-benefit structure of legal education they will do nothing about this fundamental structural problem. ... Any reform that doesn't make legal education less expensive while reducing the number of new attorneys is doing nothing about the real crisis, which is that law school costs far too much relative to the number of jobs available for attorneys.
After all, given the basic structure of American legal education, making that education more clinically intensive would be even more expensive than maintaining the present model, which remains centered on tenure-track law professors teaching classes with 50 and 75 and 120 students in them. (The simplest way to drive down the cost of legal education would be to make the tenure-track faculty teach the same number of classes their predecessors were teaching in the 1970s. It's true this might result in 5000 rather than 10,000 law review articles being published per year, but under the circumstances this might be a price worth paying). ... And doing so would certainly not do anything about the fact that ABA-accredited law schools are producing (at least) two law graduates for every legal job. ... The problem, as these statistics illustrate, is that it appears essentially the same number of real legal jobs that existed 25 years ago are now being pursued by literally twice as many lawyers.