Benchslaps, Education / Schools, Federal Judges, Law Professors, Law School Deans, Law Schools, Sonia Sotomayor

Outsiders Criticize Law Schools, But Will Change Ever Come?

Outgoing NYLS Dean Rick Matasar

Even at the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), the criticism of the legal education business just flowed. Everybody, it seems, has an opinion on what is wrong with law schools these days.

While many of the law school deans and other administrators at the conference acknowledged problems with the system, most of the actual critiquing came from people with no power to change it. Media members (ahem) criticized law schools, judges criticized law schools, outgoing deans of law schools that shamelessly profiteered off of unwitting law students criticized — and the people who could actually change their systems dutifully listened.

But despite all of the critiques, there weren’t a lot of schools that seemed ready to institute sweeping change to the business of educating lawyers. And why should they? Change won’t come from above, and right now prospective law students are not demanding change from below…

At the AALS lunch on Friday, Second Circuit Judge José A. Cabranes dished out a healthy serving of criticism. And he did it after being introduced by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the benchslaps:

[W]hen Judge Cabranes complained that law professors were spending too much time on esoteric research at the expense of core courses, as well as poking their noses into disciplines where they didn’t belong, his words stung…

After questioning the value of much of the third year of law school, he offered some suggestions. Law schools could offer two years of basic law courses followed by an apprenticeship in the third year. Law firms could hire students at much lower salaries than they currently pay junior associates, and bill them out for lower rates that clients would welcome.

He acknowledged that such a model “may make sense for students, law firms, and clients, although not necessarily for the profits of law schools.”

This sounds a lot like Lat’s proposal for law school reform, from his New York Times piece. But what sane, self-interested law school dean would actually adopt this model? Cabranes and Lat are basically saying, “Here are some things you can do that will cost you money. Have fun!”

Obviously the profit motive is a big reason that the legal education industry looks the way it looks. But you can’t tell law faculty and administrators to voluntarily take less money. Nobody does that! It’d be like somebody telling me that I should spend more time exercising and less time making money. Why would I do that?

And it’s not even like prospective law students are demanding fundamental change. Sure, it only takes a year (or a semester) for most law students to figure out what is horribly wrong with law school. Sure, employers often bemoan how law students come out unprepared to contribute to a for-profit practice. But prospective law students keep coming in droves. So there is little pressure for law schools to change.

Nobody epitomizes the impossibility of voluntary law school change quite like former New York Law School Dean Rick Matasar. Here’s a guy who gets it. Here’s a guy who understands the problems with legal education, and how the high cost of law school hobbles graduates. And yet the man ran New York Law School — a school that charges $46,200 a year yet finished third in our Worst Law School in New York poll.

The National Law Journal reported on Matasar’s talk. He’s officially done with being a law school dean since the first of the year, but he’s still selling the same “do as I say, not as I do” approach to legal education:

In his parting words, Matasar urged legal educators to think about five new approaches:

• Diversifying to find money sources and build services beyond the traditional juris doctor program.

• Stratifying the marketplace to allow schools serve different functions and fill different niches.

• Collaborating across schools to stretch resources by, for example, sharing faculty members.

• Enrolling students who lack B.A. degrees, as legal educators in other countries do.

• Employing new approaches, such as games and computer applications, that help students learn the law.

Again, this from a man who charged people $46,200 per year to go to law school.

Look, law schools have a great thing going. They can charge pretty much whatever they want, and people will pay or borrow the money. And they don’t even have to make sure their students receive an adequate return on their investment.

Would you voluntarily change?

At Meeting, Federal Judge Hands Down a Sharp Opinion About Law Schools [Chronicle of Higher Education]
AALS hears words of caution from departing dean [National Law Journal]

Earlier: The Broken Law School Model: What Is To Be Done?
Landslide Choice For Worst Law School In New York

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