Bad Ideas, Law Professors, Law Schools, Student Loans

Law Professor Suggests Adding An Extra Year To Law School — Seriously?

This takes balls. Not courage, but balls.

I’m using the term “balls” as a synonym for gall. I’m invoking the connotation of “stubbornness.” A law professor who can look at the current legal job market and the financial ruin suffered by so many law graduates, and fix his mouth to suggest that law school should take longer (and thereby cost more), really has balls. It’d be like Orson Scott Card thanking the producers of Ender’s Game for not casting “a little gay kid” in the title role.

I’m reluctant to even write this post and give this professor a wider circulation for his crackpot views, but I want the internet record to be complete, lest some person who hasn’t been paying attention happens upon the professor’s article and stupidly thinks, “This makes sense to me….”

Cardozo Law School professor Edward A. Zelinsky wins the award for “worst argument on the internet this week.” He thinks law school should be four years long. That’s a silly concept as a stand-alone statement, but it becomes really ridiculous when you look at his three “reasons” for extending law school, set forth in his post:

First, there is today much more law to learn than there was in the past. There are today whole new fields of law which did not exist a generation ago, e.g., health care law. Moreover, within pre-existing areas of the law, the amount of law has expanded enormously over the last two decades.

Consider, for example, the area in which I write and teach, taxation. No one doubts that the current tax law is more complicated and extensive than the taw law in effect when I went to law school. Important subspecialties, e.g., pensions, partnership tax, and international tax, have grown in complexity and importance….

Imagine a critic of medical education who looked at the explosion of medical science in recent decades and called for less medical schooling. That is precisely what the advocates of a two year JD program are doing.

First, it’s comical how his last argument frustrates his first. There is undoubtedly more medicine to learn now than there were a generation ago, and yet medical school doesn’t take any longer.

But what really gets me is that Zelinsky here is kind of explaining why his theory of legal education is completely flawed: the goal of law school shouldn’t be to teach people every substantive rule and standard of every possible field of law. The goal is to teach students a way of understanding and researching the basic concepts so that students can learn for themselves over the course of their careers. This is what law school deans and professors talk about when they talk about “thinking like a lawyer.”

The law is ALWAYS changing. There’s always something new; there are always new specialties and subspecialties emerging. A good law school curriculum prepares you for what you don’t know. If you are teaching “tax law” and your students are graduating with no idea about how to think through, research, and handle “international tax” problems, then you’re being a horrible tax professor. Christ, what if one day your students have to deal with taxation in space? Are they going to cry because they didn’t take “Space Tax” in law school, or are they going to be prepared to read the code, apply rules, and figure out how their Martian clients can avoid the long arm of Uncle Sam?

You don’t need an extra year of law school to deal with the complexities for the modern world; you need better law professors.

Second, through expanded LLM programs, we are de facto creeping towards four years of legal education. In many areas of the law, such as tax, LLM degrees have grown in prominence. Several factors are fueling the expansion of LLM programs. Chief among these is that there is now more law to cover in a fourth year of law school.

Rather than the currently haphazard growth of LLM programs, it would be more sensible to require universally a fourth year of education for all law students.

Translation: Some people are intelligent enough to know that the vast majority of LLM programs offer no employment advantages. Thus, they avoid the LLM trap and save their money. Instead of designing LLM programs that are so useful that people actually want to opt-in, it’s far easier to just force them to take the programs by holding their degrees hostage until they pay us another cut.

Third, many of the same critics who favor a two year law school curriculum also support expanded clinical education for law students. Such expanded clinical education should not come at the expense of substantive legal education but in addition to it. One way of thinking about the proposed fourth year of law school is that it responds to the demand for more clinical education in light of the simultaneously growing need for more substantive legal education.

No no no. People who argue for expanded clinical programs claim that clinics are substantive legal education. Critics argue that what Zelinsky calls “substantive” is actually just in-class, doctrinal BS that focuses on the theoretical as opposed to substantive learning. People want clinics precisely because they want to learn by doing; they’re trying to get out of the classroom.

Again, it really takes… balls to sit there and say that forcing people to go through an extra year of law school is the answer for people who think law school isn’t focused enough on practice-ready learning.

Zelinsky does, kind of, address the cost issue. But he does it in a way that all but proves he doesn’t give a crap about how much law students are being asked to pay:

The most serious argument against a fourth year of law school is the additional cost it would entail. Legal education is already too expensive. Adding a fourth year would impart even greater urgency to task of controlling the expense of law school, just as there is currently great urgency to the task of controlling the costs of undergraduate education.

Today’s panacea for controlling educational expenses is technology, most prominently online courses. I’m skeptical of panaceas in general and this panacea in particular. However, there are areas in which law school faculties and administrations can genuinely achieve economies. There is nothing sacrosanct about current teaching loads or about the much noted growth of administrative outlays by institutions of higher education.

If technology is supposed to decrease the cost of legal education, then why hasn’t it already? What hasn’t tuition at Cardozo gone down over the past ten years? Why are law schools terrified about the decreasing number of law school applicants? Is Professor Zelinsky honestly suggesting that somehow four years of law school will be cheaper than three? Why don’t we focus on retarding the current administrative outlays before we try to increase the cost of school by 33 percent?

Zelinsky’s idea is a joke, and not a funny one. It’s a callous thought experiment by a professor who seems more interested in helping law schools take advantage of their students, instead of seriously looking at what law students need in this challenging market.

Add a fourth year to law school [OUPblog]

Earlier: The Value of the LL.M. Degree? Still Low

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