Law School Deans, Law Schools

The Problems of Legal Education

Ed. note: Frank H. Wu is the Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He’s currently sharing some of his thoughts about legal education and other topics here on Above the Law.

Legal education does not suffer from a problem. It suffers from multiple problems.

In law school, before students learn anything else, they must understand the importance of issue spotting. One cannot analyze a case or a line of cases, without being able to see the multiple potential issues that are raised and then recognizing which warrant consideration. In actual practice, this skill remains a pre-requisite for offering an opinion or fashioning an argument. It becomes a matter of course.

Legal education faces at least three problems. They are related but not the same. What might help with respect to one problem might hurt with respect to another problem….

First, there is a glut of lawyers on the market. There are simply too many people out there who hold JDs and wish to work as lawyers. The oversupply may be overstated, but the number of seats in law school should be — and is being — reduced.

This particular issue extends beyond law school; there are too many lawyers at virtually every level, including the most prestigious. Even if this surplus is temporary, its negative consequences may be so significant as to outweigh everything else. (There is the irony, for another day, of a lack of lawyers available to represent ordinary people.)

There are various possible remedies. Some lawyers will, as they always have, perform other types of work. That encompasses occupations that are as fulfilling, intellectually and materially, as the role of an attorney; it does not mean dispensing fancy coffee. Other lawyers might migrate overseas, where demand is relatively strong and likely to remain so.

Second, legal education costs too much. (I’ll discuss the hyperinflation of tuition further later.)

Third, the skills that are imparted through the traditional program of training are not suited to the demands of employers, and, ultimately, clients.

The Dean of Georgetown, William Treanor, gave a talk recently for the Lawyers Club of San Francisco. He observed that the possibility of a shortened curriculum, meant to address the second problem (high cost), would worsen the third problem (inadequate skills). There is another means of changing the cost-benefit calculation: instead of decreasing the former, increase the latter. (Incidentally, for economies as a whole, deflation presents worse risks than inflation.)

In the background, however, there is a problem bigger than all of the ones mentioned above. We are living through a period of profound economic restructuring in general. It isn’t merely the pervasive effects of globalization and the speed of technological advance; it’s the constancy of change and the volatility of society. Almost all of us are unsettled by uncertainty, even if we would like to be avant-garde. For those of us who have felt assured of the American Dream, it is about as demoralizing as it could be to realize that our reasonable expectations might not be matched by economic realities — never mind unreasonable expectations that are held dear.

The only hope, for institutions as well as individuals, is to adapt. That has always been true. It hasn’t always been acknowledged. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds; that is yet to come.


Frank H. Wu is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. He also is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (affiliate link).

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