Paul L. Caron

Sunday, December 18, 2011

NY Times: For Law Schools, a Price to Play the ABA's Way

ABANew York Times, For Law Schools, a Price to Play the ABA's Way, by David Segal:

[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.”

New York Times Economix Blog, Ask David Segal About Law School:

On the cover of this week’s Sunday Business section, The Times’s David Segal writes about how standards set by the ABA can affect law schools. The association’s rules make it difficult for law schools to offer legal education without charging hefty tuition.

The article concludes a series of articles about legal education that Mr. Segal has written this year:

Readers are invited to submit questions about the series, or about law school, in the comment section below. Mr. Segal will respond to a selection of questions in the days ahead.

New York Times iTunes Podcast, The Cost of Law School

(Hat Tip: Andy Morriss, Bill Turnier.)


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" . . . why does a professor at USC -- a highly ranked law school -- not even know her own state's bar exam eligibility criteria? "

Perhaps she doesn't know because law schools and most of their profs aren't concerned with preparing their students to be practicing lawyers, so they don't bother to be familiar with the eligibility requirements for admission to the bar. Or they know that one can bypass formal legal education and meet bar admission requirements, but they prefer to play dumb. ( see )

My sister's complaint about the mismatch between law school course content and what one needed to know to pass the bar exam is consistent with either hypothesis. Most of her co-graduates failed the bar exam (in Iowa) at least once and often more than once. She believes she made it through on the first pass mainly because of the window into the concerns of practicing attorneys provided by her part time work-study assignments in the law library helping practicing patrons with their questions and research projects rather than because of the coverage of pertinent material in any of her courses. So she might say: "If you want to blast through the bar exam, stuff being on the 'law review' staff, and instead spend a few hundred hours fielding patron requests in the law library and pumping them for insight into the lay of the legal landscape seen through the eyes of practicing attorneys."

Posted by: Ridge Runner | Dec 20, 2011 3:00:06 PM

Another poorly researched hatchet job by David Segal, on his one-man crusade against law schools.

Segal is flat out wrong on the facts.

In many states, students can sit for the bar without a J.D. if they work under the supervision of an attorney for a certain number of years--prospective lawyers need not even attend complete law school to be licensed.

In New York, the home state of the New York Times, the requirement to take the bar is either:
1. Graduate from an accredited law school
2. Get through one year of law school in good standing and work for a licensed attorney for at least 4 years.

California has similar rules, i.e., one year of law school plus four years of apprenticeship is enough:'

Once an attorney is admitted in one state and has practiced for a certain number of years, they can usually waive into another state.

I suppose asking the New York times to do 30 seconds of google research before publishing an anti-education screed is too much to expect of a journalist from the "paper of record."

Is Segal misquoting the professors he claims to be citing? If not, why does a professor at USC -- a highly ranked law school -- not even know her own state's bar exam eligibility criteria?

Posted by: Anon | Dec 19, 2011 7:44:32 AM

With U of Tenn law school tuition set at $14,044 per year and total estimated expenses at about $35K, I find it hard to accept at face value, Duncan's claim that with tuition of $28K and overall estimated costs at $50K, it has a goal of providing low cost legal education in the Knoxville area. We all know that law schools at most private universities are profit centers that prop up the finances of the overall university. Segal seems to need to dig a bit deeper in his journalistic endeavors.

Posted by: Bill | Dec 19, 2011 6:45:33 AM

so Segal thinks it is wrong for an ABA accreditation committee to ask about job prospects for grads? His other articles think it is a very proper question for existing schools; I cannot imagine more relevant question when accrediting a new school, which will produce additonal lawyers -- does the market need it?

Does Segal really think the BA acts as a cartel for lawyers? if they did, I would not have expected them to approve things like outsourcing to India.

Sure, you can talk about low priced schools filling a need for unwanted clients, with that diploma in hand, they are going after the best paying clients also, if they can.

Posted by: jiff | Dec 18, 2011 1:29:19 PM