[Before their] students can practice in every state, [Duncan School of Law] needs the seal of approval of the ABA, the government-anointed regulator of law schools.
That means complying with a long list of standards that shape the composition of the faculty, the library and dozens of other particulars. The basic blueprint was established by elite institutions more than a century ago, and according to critics, it all but prohibits the law-school equivalent of the Honda Civic — a low-cost model that delivers.
Instead, virtually every one of the country’s 200 ABA-accredited schools, from the lowliest to the most prestigious, has to build a Cadillac, or at least come close. ...
The debate about legal education has focused on tuition costs in the stratospheric layers of the law-school world. But what of the ground floor? Duncan hopes to draw students from economically distressed parts of the country, including the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, and sincere efforts have been made to keep overhead to a minimum.
But tuition here is still $28,664 a year. With living expenses and various fees, the student handbook warns, the total price tag for a year runs $50,000.
The reason, according to Pete DeBusk, a retired businessman and the school’s main benefactor, is the ABA standards. Without them, he says, Duncan could have cut its tuition in half, maybe by two-thirds. ...
Anyone willing to invest $175,000 on a legal education, and hoping to earn a pile of money at a corporate firm, has plenty of options. But let’s say that your ambition is to make a modest living, perhaps in an area that is struggling. Or that you’d rather not enter your mid-20s lashed to a six-figure loan.
If you want a diploma blessed by the ABA — and you don’t have rich parents, a plum scholarship or an in-state public law school with lots of taxpayer support — you are pretty much out of luck. And that is not just a problem for would-be attorneys. The lack of affordable law school options, scholars say, helps explain why so many Americans don’t hire lawyers.
“People like to say there are too many lawyers,” says Prof. Andrew Morriss of the University of Alabama School of Law. “There are too many lawyers who charge $300 an hour. There aren’t too many lawyers who will handle a divorce at a reasonable rate, or handle a bankruptcy at a reasonable rate. But there is no way to be that lawyer and service $150,000 worth of debt.”
This helps explain a paradox: the United States churns out roughly 45,000 lawyers a year, but survey after survey finds enormous unmet need for legal services, particularly in low- and middle-income communities. This year, the World Justice Project put the United States dead last among 11 high-income countries in providing access to civil justice.
It’s not just that many lawyers are prohibitively expensive. It is that when it comes to legal expertise, there are not a lot of cheaper alternatives — not in the United States, anyway. Britain, on the other hand, has a long menu of options, including a tier of professionals called legal executives, who are licensed after getting the equivalent of a community college degree. Counsel is also available from nonlawyers at a variety of nonprofits. And you can buy a simple divorce over the Internet for a set fee, or pay for customized legal advice, online or by phone.
“In the U.S., people and businesses have only one place to go for all their legal help — lawyers who graduated from an ABA-approved law school and who follow mostly A.B.A. rules about how they run their practice,” says Gillian Hadfield, a professor at the Gould School of Law of the University of Southern California. “Everyone else who offers legal advice is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.” ...
Detractors contend that these responsibilities allow the ABA to behave like a guild — limiting competition and keeping the cost of legal education excessively high. ... [T]he cost of law school tuition has soared, though at the high end, those prices are not the fault of the ABA. They are attributable to the prestige race prompted by U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of law schools, along with the wide availability of student loans.
What the ABA can be blamed for, says George B. Shepherd, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, are exorbitant prices even at those schools that aspire to affordability. That, he maintains, is all about accreditation. ...
Members of the ABA Section say the point of the standards is not to raise the cost of law school, or to limit competition. The point is to ensure that lawyers are well trained and that the public gets quality legal services. ...
The more you look at a law school’s ledgers, the more life in the legal academy seems a sweet deal. And it’s been getting sweeter. Course loads have shrunk in the last couple of decades; the pay scale is high and has been rising. Median salaries are in the $120,000-to-$150,000 range, but superstars can earn $300,000 or more and the best of the best get pretty special housing deals. Over the summer, the New York University School of Law spent $5.6 million on two apartments in the West Village. A spokesman for the school said it had yet to determine whether the units would be combined and who would live there.
“It’s a wonderful life,” says Nancy Rapoport, a professor at the Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of an article for the Indiana Law Journal, Eating Our Cake and Having It Too: Why Real Change Is So Difficult in Law Schools.
“You’ve got a lot of happy law professors, who don’t want to change anything,” Ms. Rapoport said. “They may not realize how precarious legal education is, and the legal market is, right now. That’s human nature. Everything is going well. Let’s keep it the way it is.”