I’m really enjoying the newfound interest from the New York Times about the state of legal education. Times reporter David Segal seems genuinely interested in recording the growing tragedy of American law schools.

Concern from mainstream media is great, but the proposed solutions are a little bit scary. Last month, Segal Slate explored the possibility of paying people to not go to law school.

As we mentioned in Morning Docket, Segal is at it again. This time, he’s questioning the American Bar Association’s role in keeping the cost of legal education so high. Unfortunately, the solution seems to be letting everybody who wants to open a law school do so.

Is it worth pushing down the price of legal education by offering really crappy legal education?

The Times article profiles the Duncan School of Law, at Lincoln Memorial University. It’s a new law school in Appalachia, just two years old, that is struggling to get ABA accreditation. The Times sets up Duncan as a law school that would like to keep costs low, but can’t because it’s trying to meet the tough ABA standards of accreditation. Blah, blah, blah, Duncan is effectively forced to charge the following:

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.

If it wasn’t my job, I might have stopped reading right there. I think the ABA is an organization that actively works against the interests of people trying to go to law school, but it’s not sitting there with a gun forcing Duncan students to spend $50K to go to law school in Nowhere, Tennessee. And if it was, the students would still be better off taking a bullet wound than paying fifty grand to go to law school there. Suggesting there’s nothing Duncan can do about this enormous price tag is just silly.

It takes pages before Segal gets to the most real culprit behind the hefty price tag:

Duncan’s largest single cost is its faculty, which, as with most A.B.A.-accredited law schools, consumes about half its total budget. This is the only expense that [Sydney Beckman -- Dean of Duncan Law School] declines to detail, other than to say that he has three adjuncts and 16 full-time professors. Adjuncts are basically part-timers and far less expensive. But the A.B.A. prohibits an adjuncts-only faculty by requiring that full-time faculty teach a major portion of the entire curriculum.

What a surprise! The “low cost” law school is flummoxed by the ridiculously high salaries of law professors, salaries that the dean refuses to fully explain in an article designed to highlight how the school is struggling to keep costs down.

It’s a story we’ve heard at least 200 other times before. Segal does a lot to try to indirectly blame the high cost of professorial salaries on various rules, written and unwritten, about attaining ABA accreditation, but there’s no way to completely gloss over faculty greed and deans (who are themselves part of legal academia) being all too happy to keep paying into the system that keeps salaries high for all.

I’m telling you, when I’m dean of Above the Law: The Law School, the median faculty salary will match the median salary achievable by graduates of our institution. And there will be a “hard cap” on the top salary. If professors don’t like it, they’ll be free to go into private practice where they claim they’ll be able to make oh so much more.

Segal’s article contains a really interesting history of how the ABA became “the ABA.” It’s basically an organization that has been built on the exclusion of low-cost competitors from its club, with the imprimatur of approval from a government that (surprise again) doesn’t really know what it’s doing. The ABA is designed to keep people out, and thus the cost of starting and running a law school is prohibitively high.

It all builds to the somewhat obvious solution. In the article, it’s articulated by USC Gould School of Law professor Gillian Hadfield:

Still, Ms. Hadfield at U.S.C. calls herself an optimist. She thinks federal and state governments could set up other accrediting agencies and licensing bodies to oversee training and licensing of other types of legal providers. (In England, eight different bodies license legal services.)

Her vision isn’t a free-for-all, where anyone can hang a shingle; it is a range of options that would entail an array of educational degrees and a broad spectrum of prices and formats for legal services.

“The more we talk about this,” she says, “the more we can dislodge the idea that the highest value is to provide a state bar licensed lawyer from an A.B.A.-accredited school to everyone who needs legal help.”

It’s really not a bad idea, but unfortunately, it requires a nationwide reinterpretation of legal services. You’d need to redefine who is allowed to perform legal services. Our politics would destroy any such effort. You need proof: tell me, who gets to be a plaintiff’s lawyer in tort? Republicans will want to make it as difficult as possible for a person to sue a cherished American business. Democrats will want anybody who can scrawl his or her name to be a member of the plaintiff’s bar. And since we don’t live in a country that compromises anymore, either Republicans will get their way, or nothing will happen.

But more to the point, I don’t think Hadfield’s solution will appease the likes of Duncan Law School, either. They don’t want to have some kind of enhanced version of a non-lawyer school so that the people of Tennessee have access to low-cost trusts-and-estates lawyers. I’m sure they have LegalZoom in Appalachia already.

No, at the end of the day, these people want to train lawyers. Full service, do-it-all lawyers. It’s very lucrative to train people to do that.

The ABA doesn’t force prices to be high, so much as it refuses to require costs be controlled.

For Law Schools, a Price to Play the A.B.A.’s Way [New York Times]

Earlier: Pay to Go to Law School or Get Paid to Quit: You Won’t Be Learning Anything Either Way


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