You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How to Fix Law School

Six experts tell us what they'd change

OThe New Republic'cover this week, Noam Scheiber chronicles the looming economic collapse of the legal profession. This will come as bad news for the thousands of people who each year take out towering student loans to join that profession. And it also ought to scare the people who run America's law schools, which once sold themselves in large part by promising graduates a safe place in the elite. With that in mind, we reached out to law professors, writers, and practitioners for thoughts on how to improve law school.

Alan Dershowitz: Make Law School “Two Years-Plus”

I have long proposed a change in the structure of law school education whereby the academic portion would be completed in two years, and the third year would be focused specifically on the student’s career choice. For those who want to become professors, the third year would consist of a mini-PhD program, with an emphasis on research, writing, and teaching; for those interested in government work, a supervised internship with a local, state, federal, or international organization; for those interested in practice, clinical training in the relevant areas of specialization. During this year away from conventional teaching, the students would remain connected to their teachers through interactive electronic communication. At the end of the third year, everyone would return to the classroom for a month-long series of lectures and seminars designed to bring together the academic les­sons of the first two years and the practical experiences of the third year.

This change in the third year might also have the desirable effect of reducing the cost of law school, since fewer teachers would be needed to conduct third-year classes. The negative consequence would be a reduction in the number of law-school teachers. There are no free lunches when it comes to legal education, but cost-cutting is essential as law-school tuition has ballooned dramatically over the past half century.

Variations of this “two-year-plus” law degree are now being considered by some law schools and legal educators. The law school of tomorrow will have to be a different place than the law school of yesterday and today if legal education is to prepare the next generation of lawyers for a quickly changing profession and world.

Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard University.

Mike Kinsley: Lose the Socratic Method

I could be completely wrong, but my impression from afar, from friends who are now professors (itself an absurdity), is that law school has changed less than other professional schools in the past generation. Here are my suggestions for reform.

  • Law school should be two years, with perhaps a third year of clinical practice. Two years is plenty to get the general idea of “thinking like a lawyer” and to master the tedious or fascinating details of a few specific subjects.
  • When you graduate, you should be prepared to pass the bar. The discovery that everything you have crammed into your head for three years has no relevance at all, and you have to master a whole new curriculum in just a few weeks for the bar exam, is dispiriting.
  • It’s absurd that you can graduate from law school without ever seeing a real client. Some clinical courses ought to be mandatory. Trainee doctors start seeing real patients within a year and a half. Trainee lawyers can go three, and graduate, without ever touching a client. And, let’s be honest, the training of your doctor is more important.
  • The Socratic method, in which a lecture hall full of students is supposed to sit politely while the professor plays a game of “guess what I’m thinking” with one or two of them, should go. So should the hallowed tradition of using appeals court rulings as the primary teaching materials. It’s an incredibly inefficient way to convey information, when the point they want you to absorb is two sentences at the end of 40 apparently irrelevant pages.
  • When I went to law school, 35 years ago, it was almost all large lectures, none of which would have suffered much from being on videotape. (The bar review course was on videotape, and it was far and away the best teaching I experienced.) Put the entire law school curriculum on the internet, using the best teachers of each subject. Price it low. Cut out the third year. You can undersell traditional law schools by half.

Mike Kinsley is an editor-at-large at The New Republic.

Paul Campos: Stop Unlimited Loaning to Law School Students

In real, inflation-adjusted terms, tuition at private American law schools has doubled over the past 20 years, tripled over the past 30, and quadrupled over the past 40. The rate of increase for resident tuition at public law schools has been even steeper.

The result of this trend is that students enrolling in law school this fall will graduate with an average of around $200,000 in educational debt. This debt will carry an interest rate of about 7.5 percent, which means that typical law graduates will start their legal careers, assuming they have such careers—nearly half of 2012 graduating class did not get jobs requiring law degrees—with an obligation to pay $15,000 per year in interest alone on their debt.

Law graduates are now incurring levels of educational debt that can be serviced only by the salaries paid by the kinds of large law firms featured in Noam Scheiber’s article. Yet only 10 percent of current law graduates get such jobs, and, as Scheiber’s article suggests, such firms seem more likely to contract rather than expand in the foreseeable future.

Two aphorisms from economists sum up what’s going on in legal education today: Herb Stein’s observation that, if something cannot go on forever, it will stop; and Michael Hudson’s insight that debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be.

The current price structure of legal education represents a massive market failure. The primary source of that failure is the federal government’s policy of allowing anyone admitted to any law school to borrow the full cost of attendance, including living expenses, to that institution. Incredibly, law schools can charge any price they want, and law students can borrow that amount from taxpayers, subject to no actuarial controls whatsoever.

The cost of law school needs to be reduced to what it was a generation ago. This would happen practically overnight if the federal government put reasonable caps on educational loans. Such caps need to take into account that law graduates are entering a hyper-saturated market, which features approximately one job for every two new lawyers. Around one in every five of those jobs pays more than a mid-five-figure salary. Allowing people to borrow $200,000 of taxpayer money to enter such a market is extraordinarily irresponsible.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado Law at Boulder.  

Dahlia Lithwick: Fewer People Should Go to Law School—and More Should Drop Out

We mainly agree what’s wrong with contemporary American legal education: It’s all about training hundreds of thousands of brilliant young people to be wildly successful nineteenth-century lawyers. Legal education is about maintaining an expensive cookie-cutter pedagogy to satisfy rigid cookie-cutter accreditation standards, all aimed at populating huge law firms that are a thing of the past. All with the added burden of crushing lifelong debt. Being trained to “think like a lawyer” is terrific as far as it goes. But legal education is notoriously abstract, impractical, and obfuscating. I don’t want someone to “think like a doctor” when she’s taking out my gall bladder. I want her to take out my gall bladder.

If legal education is failing because it produces one-dimensional candidates for jobs that are vanishing, one solution is to send young people to programs that better suit their interests; for too long law school has been the place young Americans go to become generally leader-ey. Paul Campos has said for years that law school should be for lawyers. The other is to revamp legal education to recognize the diversity of people that enter law schools, and the diversity of employment they will seek upon graduation. Brian Tamanaha has suggested that this could include different types of law schools for different types of lawyers, and changing the accreditation rules. Law schools also need to offer meaningful opportunities to learn real skills, from brief-writing and litigation, to apprenticeships and clinics. We also need to get costs and debt under control.

If I could make one small change to law school it might be to have a practical, hands-on clinical year as part of the three-year program, but to put it at the first year, not the third. The hope is that a year of practicing taking depositions, doing document review, and interviewing cranky clients might have helped clarify for many of us, early and often, that we won’t all get to be Clarence Darrow.

Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor and legal correspondent for Slate.

David Lat: Make a Post-College Gap Mandatory

Many of the challenges facing the legal profession can be reduced to supply and demand: too many lawyers chasing too little work, which itself results from too many people going to law school. And why do people go to law school? Often it’s a failure of imagination. As a former professor of mine put it, “Law school is the great American default option for smart kids who can’t stand the sight of blood.” If you’re intelligent, ambitious, and undecided about your future, going directly from college to law school is the path of least resistance. Too little resistance, and not enough deliberation—which is why law schools should follow the model of many business schools and require incoming students to have at least two years of post-undergraduate experience.

First, such a requirement would compel students to explore other paths. Given the high cost of legal education and the challenging job market for lawyers, the decision to matriculate should not be made lightly. If an alternative career presents itself, that career is worth considering—especially if it doesn’t carry a six-figure price tag.

Second, it would make for a richer and more diverse learning environment. Currently, 20 to 30 percent of the typical first-year law school class has no experience other than college. Additional experience—working in the private or public sector, studying a discipline other than law, traveling to other countries—makes for better classroom discussions, more interesting academic research, and more mature and well-adjusted law students.

Third, it would likely reduce law school enrollment, as some college graduates denied the opportunity to go straight into law school ultimately decide not to go at all. And that would be positive. First-year law student enrollment declined by 8.5 percent last year, but with only 56 percent of the class of 2012 finding full-time legal jobs within nine months of graduation, there is still a long way to go.

Law school is still a wise choice for many, but it should not be made unthinkingly. The world is a big place, and college graduates should explore it before making the serious and expensive commitment of going to law school. Prospective law students should be forced to be free—free to consider all their options, give a long hard look at law school, and quite possibly just say no.

David Lat is the founder and managing editor of Above the Law.

Mark Chandler: Let Students Intern for Money and Credit

The crisis in legal education is often blamed on corporate clients like me. The story goes like this: Under pressure to lower costs each year, we refuse to pay for expensive young associates to do work that can be accomplished by contract attorneys, technology or by non-lawyers working remotely. Worse, we are increasingly unwilling to pay on the basis of billable hours, which reward firms based on how slowly and inefficiently work gets done, rather than how quickly and efficiently. This pushes law firms to make their operations more efficient, reducing employment opportunities for young lawyers who emerge from school with few practical skills and significant training needs. With current students saddled with huge debt and facing limited job prospects, prospective applicants are turning elsewhere, and schools are reducing class sizes and faculties.

But companies like mine, and law firms as well, can also be part of the solution. We’ve proposed the following, and Colorado University Law School's visionary dean Philip J. Weiser is working to implement this program next year: Students will work as interns at Cisco for seven months–from June of the second year of law school until the following January, and potentially part-time during the following spring. We will pay them as we do our customary interns, and the students will not be required to pay tuition to the law school for the fall semester. The students will be supervised by a faculty member during the fall through an intensive credit-earning independent study project, and the students will also take extra courses during the rest of law school to ensure sufficient ABA-approved credits to graduate. We also plan to recognize the school's leadership through donations.

Over the long term, there are a range of changes to ABA rules and law school practices that that will be needed to scale programs like this. For instance, law schools generally require that full-semester externships, for which credit is earned, be performed for non-profit or governmental entities, somehow distinguishing between funded research at think-tanks and the companies that fund them; moreover, ABA rules don’t allow students to be compensated for work for which they receive credit. Appropriate relaxation of those rules, with academic oversight, could ease the way to lower debt, better training, and recognition of law school's investments in faculty and support services.

Mark Chandler is general counsel at Cisco Systems.

Image via Shutterstock.