Conferences / Symposia, Education / Schools, Law Professors, Law School Deans, Law Schools

What Does the Future Hold for American Legal Education?

These are trying times — not just for law students and law graduates, but for law professors as well. Despite occasional (and unfair) depictions of law profs enjoying lives of leisure and six-figure salaries while their unemployed students suffer, legal academics know that their fates are tied to the health of the legal profession as a whole. Law professors have an interest in seeing that law students land jobs. After all, more employed law grads–>more students going to law school–>more tuition dollars to fund faculty positions (and raises, summer research grants, and sabbaticals).

So law professors are turning their considerable talents towards making legal education a more viable long-term enterprise. Let’s hear one professor’s proposal for reform, and another professor’s optimistic take on the future of legal academia and the legal profession more broadly….

As I mentioned the other day, I recently attended an excellent conference at George Mason Law in honor of the late Larry Ribstein. At a panel entitled “The Past and Future of Legal Education,” Professor John O. McGinnis presented a paper arguing for an undergraduate option for legal education.

It’s not an entirely novel proposal — Elie attended a conference over the summer where another professor presented a similar idea — but it’s certainly worth considering. Here’s how McGinnis described his proposal in a Wall Street Journal piece (co-authored with Russell Mangas of Kirkland & Ellis):

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.

An undergraduate legal degree could be readily designed. A student could devote half of his course work to the major, which would allow him to approximate two years of legal study. There is substantial agreement in the profession that two years are enough to understand the essentials of the law—both the basics of our ancient common law and the innovations of our modern world. A one-year apprenticeship after graduation would allow young lawyers to replace the superfluous third year of law school with practical training.

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.

Harvard Law School isn’t the only possible model for legal education.

I support the idea of reducing classroom time and combining formal instruction with paid apprenticeship. I outlined a similar proposal in the New York Times last year.

In his conference presentation, Professor McGinnis suggested that about 60 credit hours of coursework could suffice for an undergraduate degree in law. This might require change from the American Bar Association, since the ABA currently requires 80 hours of coursework to earn a law degree from an ABA-accredited law school, and many jurisdictions require those who sit for the bar to have graduated from an ABA-accredited school. (Northwestern Law’s former dean, David Van Zandt, has persuasively argued why this requirement should be reduced.)

McGinnis argued that his proposal of allowing for an undergraduate option, to be offered in addition to traditional graduate study in law, would have several advantages. It would lower the cost of getting a legal education, in terms of eliminating both the cost of a J.D. degree and the opportunity cost of graduate study in law, and this lower cost would hopefully translate into lower-priced legal services for consumers. But consumers would still be protected, thanks to the requirement of bar exam passage.

This approach would also allow for a greater diversity of career paths in law, to reflect the different types of lawyers needed by society. Some lawyers interested in handling very sophisticated matters might still pursue graduate degrees in law after completing their undergraduate studies in different disciplines. But other lawyers, perhaps lawyers who would focus on simpler matters, might prefer the undergraduate option. Still other lawyers might get undergraduate degrees in law, practice for a time, and then return to get L.L.M. degrees in particular specialties.

During the question-and-answer session, some conference attendees worried about whether this system would adequately train lawyers. McGinnis pointed out that many other countries, such as Great Britain and other Commonwealth nations, have law as an undergraduate degree, and there’s no evidence that these countries are facing some crisis in the quality of legal services. He once again emphasized that his proposal has the virtue of allowing for a greater variety of lawyers and lawyering (since people could still get traditional J.D. degrees if they like). Making a comparison to cars, he observed that “not every lawyer needs to be a Bentley”; sometimes a less fancy vehicle can get the job done just as well.

One interesting query from the Q-and-A: given the glut of lawyers we already have, why do we still see so many Americans unable to afford legal services? Why hasn’t the cost of legal services for ordinary Americans come down dramatically, thanks to the large number of unemployed and underemployed lawyers out there?

McGinnis suggested that some law school graduates might be seeking work outside the profession because it’s a better way for them to earn money to pay off their student loans than trying to hang the proverbial shingle. If their educational debts were more modest, maybe some of these individuals would stay in the legal profession and attempt to provide their services to clients in a cost-effective manner.

How would such reforms ever come to pass, given the entrenched interests that might oppose such a plan? That’s less clear, and Professor McGinnis didn’t dwell on the topic. He did observe, though, that the current crisis in the legal profession — one featuring unemployed, debt-laden law grads, along with many Americans who can’t afford legal services — does create some pressure for improvement.

The subject of what the future might hold for the legal academy and legal profession as a whole came up in a subsequent panel. Professor Benjamin Barton of the University of Tennessee College of Law presented a paper entitled “A Glass Half Full Look at the Changes in the American Legal Market.”

Professor Barton observed that after years of incredible growth, the legal profession is experiencing a painful transition process. He identified three factors contributing to that transition: (1) in-house legal departments paying less to outside firms, (2) the rise of LegalZoom and similar services on the consumer side, and (3) the flood of law school graduates seeking jobs.

So where’s the “glass half-full” analysis? According to Barton, after the legal profession goes through this difficult transition — one in which unemployed and underemployed lawyers will abound, and some law schools might lose ABA accreditation or even close — things will be better. Corporate legal departments and individual consumers will benefit from more reasonably priced legal services. Fewer people might go to law school, but these people will have a better idea of what they are getting into, as well as more reasonable expectations when they come out. There might be fewer jobs in law firms, but people lucky enough to obtain these jobs will enjoy higher career satisfaction (perhaps because they went to law school because they actually wanted to practice law, or perhaps because many of the more routine, less pleasant tasks got outsourced or taken over by technology).

Will this “glass half-full” vision come to pass? It’s not clear that it will, but the current crisis provides some reason for optimism, insofar as the status quo can’t continue indefinitely. One alternative to the half-full glass is the broken glass, with a big old mess on the floor.

Unlocking the Law: Building on the Work of Larry Ribstein [George Mason University School of Law]
First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Law Schools [Wall Street Journal]
The Case Against Law School [Room for Debate / New York Times]

Earlier: Quote of the Day: And Then They Came for the Partners
Will American Law Schools Adapt To The Changing Legal Market? Ever? Do They Even Care?

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