Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

WSJ Op-Ed: First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Law Schools

Wall Street Journal op-ed, First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Law Schools, by John O. McGinnis (Northwestern) & Russell D. Mangas (Kirkland & Ellis, Chicago):

Allowing undergraduate law majors to take the bar exam would increase the number of attorneys and lower legal fees.

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. ...

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. ... 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. ...

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.

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.

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Of course, The Gold Tooth is correct. In Europe, the standard academic degree for a physician is a B.M., not an M.D. Why require four years of medical school after an undergraduate eduction? Superfluity! Start physician-training in undergrad school. By the reasoning of these folks we would both reduce the outrageous and burgeoning costs of medical care and increase the numbers of physicians.

Posted by: Publius Novus | Jan 18, 2012 7:32:30 AM

I've run across other "lawyers" in foriegn jurisdictions with a high school education and 3 years legal training. I was not impressed.

Frankly, just to get the basics in tax law I needed a BS in accounting and an LLM. Not sure how knocking out 4 years of training will help.

And yeah, your PHD in Math could do without the college part. Your Surgeon could be 4 years out of high school and your history teacher can have a PHD without the college degree.

This author is in space. The world is going to more education and more specialization, not less.

Posted by: John | Jan 18, 2012 5:59:01 AM

The practice of law is a de facto apprenticeship already, just with a high barrier to entry. Prices for most, if not all, work would stay the same as the high-end stuff is learned OTJ regardless of education and the low end work is done by paralegals are the already superfluous young lawyer applicants. That said, I wouldn't mind cutting law school to 2 years. However, I think the 2 years is needed, as liberal arts studies at most US colleges are a joke.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 17, 2012 5:50:45 PM

We have a glut of unemployed young lawyers now, and it doesn't seem to have had any impact on legal fees. Probably because of the sticky wage expectations of said young sharklings, and their ability to #OccupyMomsBasement. Markets don't clear if prices don't float.

Yes, student loan nuts are a factor in sticky wage expectations, and I expect many want the great Oz in DC to zero out their loan balances. It actually might be worth doing -- at the cost of administrative disbarment. Loan forgiveness will never sell to the public, especially for elite professions, unless the student (and school) share the haircut with the lender.

Posted by: Kevin R. C. O'Brien | Jan 17, 2012 5:03:59 PM

This splendid idea should of course be extended to other fields. Just as you can study law as a straight-out-of-high-school undergraduate in the UK, so you can study medicine. There's no reason at all why this couldn't work in the US. The law/medicine postgrad-only requirement is purely a way to keep entry to these professions lower than it would otherwise be and to raise prices on consumers.

While we're at it, let's carve up the whole idea of "lawyer" and permit colleges to graduate "real estate lawers" or "family lawyers" or "business lawyers," with training only in the specific area of law in which they plan to practice (plus some foundation courses in the constitution, simple contracts, etc.). Imagine the money that would be saved by both prospective lawyers and the public if one could become a real estate lawyer with only two or three years study at a community college!

Posted by: The Gold Tooth | Jan 17, 2012 2:48:32 PM

I think it is a fine idea. Indeed I have proposed the same thing on this blog several times.

My father, of blessed memory, and my grandfather, of blessed memory, bot had LL.B.s and practiced law very successfully for many years.

Requiring three years of graduate legal education is expensive, and does not help the lawyer, who would be far better served by smaller debts and additional years of apprenticeship, nor their employers who would be able to hire LLBs at half or less of what they are paying for JDs.

Canada, the UK and most European countries do not require a lawyer to obtain a graduate degree, and they are not worse off.

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | Jan 17, 2012 12:22:21 PM

Eliminating excessive barriers to entry in particular careers is a great idea. I'd keep going though - find a away to let anyone that passes various parts of the bar exam practice law. Maybe, let anyone practice law? Everyone is freely allowed to practice parenting and frankly that's far more important. :)

Posted by: SteveAdams21 | Jan 17, 2012 11:49:02 AM

Looking at the cost of training a lawyer looks like the cost of building a better buggy whip.

Use of a lawyer is a transaction cost. Each person is involved with dozens of complicated transactions each day. Ergo, a transaction requiring an intermidary's attention must be either a more valuble transaction, or the person doing the work must be paid near nothing.

In order to save commerce/legal from bogging down, commerce/legal has and continues to streamline transactions. Ironically, the more complicated the society, the greater streamlining is necessary.

We've come to the point where, again out of necessity, virtually no transaction a middle class person does requires the flexibility provided by an attorney. Good for commercial/legal efficiency, bad for attorney employment opportunities.

So at this point the cost of, and number of lawyers who are trained, is secondary. Lawyers, instead, need a commercial/legal system requiring more valuble, or more flexible, commercial/legal transactions, to provide employment. You can provide free legal education on a chip plugged into your head, and it doesn't mean there will be more employment of attorneys.

Posted by: Pashley1411 | Jan 17, 2012 11:46:21 AM school does teach one to be a careful reader, logical thinker and (hopefully) clear writer. (I know, I know...had a couple that worked for me who were not exactly brilliant briefers.) But it is true that we hardly need to know the Rule in Shelley's case in order to practice tax law. Or even property law. A streamlined college course, followed by a year of specialty study/practice would do just fine.

Posted by: jimbrock | Jan 17, 2012 10:23:54 AM

That is done already in Australia. Nice, but not sure its a cure all

Posted by: Roco | Jan 17, 2012 9:42:51 AM

Just what we need: more lawyers. We'll all starve then.

Posted by: jim sweeney | Jan 17, 2012 9:31:47 AM

It's actually a great idea for lowering legal costs. But every lawyer in America who already paid the $275,000 for their degree will be deal set against it.
Maybe do it like Great Britain where there are barristers and solicitors. With a BA in law you can do legal papers, but only with a JD can you go to court.

Posted by: Mark in Florida | Jan 17, 2012 9:05:42 AM

I wonder if the title writer knows where the words came from: Shakespeare in about 1598. And funnily enough, I learnt that in Australia during a rigorous undergraduate degree 45 years ago..
Isn't the issue that undergraduate degrees today don't even guarantee practical literacy?

Posted by: Barrie in PA | Jan 17, 2012 8:05:47 AM

Sure, let's let the people who brought us the Wall Street Collapse apply the same logic to law schools, it makes sense to me!

Posted by: mike livingston | Jan 17, 2012 7:47:36 AM

Are the authors of this article really not aware that pricing is based on whatever the market will bear, not on input costs?

There's no reason to believe that reducing the cost of legal education will lead to lower legal fees. The market is dominated by strong brand name law firms whose reputations cary a lot of weight--it's not a competitive commodity market. Firms will keep prices the same--they'll just pay young associates less.

All of the benefits of these reforms will go to law firm partners.

The rich will get richer and the middle class will become poorer.

The usual result of following any advice that appears in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 17, 2012 7:34:23 AM

I am not sure high legal costs have anything to do with the supply of lawyers (or student loan debt levels). In fact, I would guess that it does not. Just the opposite is probably true. There may be too many lawyers--as many remain unemployed, underemployed, or working outside of the law.

Personally, I think high legal costs may have more to do with the personalities of lawyers and the nature of legal work. The education and training process to become a lawyer is rigorous. Thus, lawyers tend to be overachievers. They are driven, and often type A personalities. Many prefer to work on complex and ambiguous assignments, big transactions, etc. This type of work is expensive no matter what industry--be it in law, accounting, engineering, medical, etc.

The lower-end legal work is usually routine--such as simple small claims disputes, no-asset divorces and estate work, workers comp claims, etc. I don't know of any lawyers that find this kind of work interesting or challenging (but a few enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from helping under-represented clients). Worse yet, this type of work pays very little. To make a living doing that work, a lawyer has to hire a staff of paralegals and let them do the work, thereby billing out the paralegals to do the work. It is a volume practice, with hundreds or thousands of client matters going on at one time. Managing a staff of paralegals for a volume practice can be somewhat lucrative business model for an attorney, but for many attorneys, the hassles are not worth the effort. This is especially true when the attorney has to forego higher-end legal work to manage a staff of paralegals. Many lawyers would rather focus their time on higher-end custom work.

I do like the idea of a LLB, but I am not sure it would reduce legal costs. It would probably result in the current paralegals or those that would otherwise be paralegals getting law degrees, and, in the short term, they could then do the lower-end legal work on their own--until they advance to more substantive legal work. The problem there is that they would be subject to bar and ethics rules (i.e., they would have the same compliance costs), which would cause them to charge the same rates as attorneys do now. I am not sure that helps anything.

Posted by: anon | Jan 17, 2012 7:29:53 AM

I think it's fascinating that Professor McGinnis would like to drive down his students' incomes to almost nothing and put may of his co-workers out of a job.

He sounds like a good, decent, loyal human being. Certainly not a social darwinist.

He must be very popular at Northwestern.

Perhaps he'd care to share his views on whether tenure protections are necessary?

Posted by: Anon | Jan 17, 2012 7:05:05 AM