For Law Schools, a Price to Play the ABA’s Way

The latest piece in David Segal’s series on U.S. law school problems identifies the enormous effect that some of the ABA Standards, especially those that affect faculty composition, have on the cost of providing legal education. The dean of the new Duncan School of Law claims that he could charge substantially less (by half or two-thirds) if it were not for the standards. This is not the first time we’ve heard a dean clamor about how expensive the accreditation standards are; in fact, the dean of another new Tennessee law school, Belmont University College of Law, made a similar claim back in the summer of 2010.

Knowing this, we recently advised the ABA Section of Legal Education’s standards review committee to “create a subcommittee to review regulatory barriers preventing law schools from adapting low-cost models.” To date, neither the committee nor the section have not done so.

The profession needs radical change to the law school cost structure. If the answers do not come quickly from legal educators, such as those involved in the Section of Legal Education, the result will be that educators end up forfeiting their right to control the changes. And if the answers have to come from elsewhere, unbreaking the broken law school model will be as painful as it is necessary.

A Law School Fantasy: Slashing Costs and Improving Preparedness

[this post appears in the National Law Journal forum on legal education]

Dean Chemerinsky’s and Professor Jewel’s contributions both raise very important points about the challenges facing legal education reform. Personally, I’m in the camp of people who believe that the legal education model will change. However, it’s apparent to me that changes must come predominately from outside of schools and the ABA Section of Legal Education. Survival instincts may prohibit even well-respected, well-meaning faculty scholars from adequately assessing the scope of the problems with the current law school model. But the increasing interest from U.S. Senators should signal to the uninitiated that law schools cannot continue to operate in a bubble. Nor can this discussion continue if everyone ignores the crux of the problem: intolerably high costs and an unacceptable number of unprepared graduates.

What would internal reform even look like if the two core goals are slashing tuition and improving preparedness? Part of the reason internal reform may be difficult to imagine, as Dean Chemerinsky pointed out, is because law schools are governed by faculty, and because substantial changes to the legal education model will alter “what [faculty] have to teach and do.” That the Section of Legal Education is captured by similarly consumer-disoriented interests, despite overtures to the contrary, only aggravates the situation and observers. It bears repeating that the Standards Review Committee, Section of Legal Education, and Dean O’Brien in his posting do not once mention how important it is that the cost of obtaining a legal education drastically decline. Reducing costs cannot be the elephant in the room if this discussion is to carry any significance with the public.

Internal reform may also be difficult to imagine because increases in quality are typically tied at the hip to increases in costs. This attitude contributed to the current model and its explosive growth over at least the last 25 years. With little or no downward pressure on the cost of legal education, and a diversity of ideas about what it means to improve the student experience, law schools can introduce new features along with yearly tuition increases, knowing they will be rewarded for it in the U.S. News rankings.

On its face, the idea that costs can decrease while quality increases is fanciful. More to the point, there is substantial denial that there is a problem with the quality of education that law schools provide graduates. Such denial comes out in claims that the “law school crisis” is cyclical, not structural.

Like Dean Chemerinsky, I graduated (albeit this year) without being ready to practice law. Yet, not unlike many law school graduates, I still received a high quality education. This confirms Dean O’Brien’s thoughts on the current state of legal education:

Legal education itself has never been in better shape in terms of the preparation that we provide future lawyers. In recent years, our schools have responded to suggestions by the bar and have substantially upgraded legal writing programs and practical skills opportunities. The process currently in place ensures that graduating lawyers are well trained for a variety of roles.

There are two important disconnects here. First, how can I claim that I received a high quality education and also say that people are wrong to deny there’s a problem with the quality of education? Second, how can Professor Olivas claim that graduates are well trained for a variety of roles, despite the increasing reticence of clients to pay for junior associates? We can reconcile both sets of questions by examining how each claim uses a different metric to evaluate quality. The first claim in each set speaks to doing something well, but not necessarily producing graduates who are/feel ready to practice law.

This brings me back to the potential fantasy of reducing costs while improving quality. In our evolved-definition-of-quality world, we may find that the current pedagogy badly misses the mark. In this case, radical change may mean substantially changing the composition of legal educators, whose salaries and benefits make up a large chunk of law school operating costs. If faculty composition radically shifts to include more practitioners teaching as adjuncts in specific, practice-oriented classes, while tenured faculty must seek grants to continue their scholarly endeavors, we could see the costs of educating aspiring lawyers decline drastically.

Reimagining Legal Education

The National Law Journal is hosting a discussion of the state of law schools, with contributions from the current Chair of the ABA Section on Legal Education, John F. O’Brien, the President of AALS, Michael Olivas, Dean Erwin Chemerinski (UC-Irvine), Bill Henderson (Indiana), Lucille Jewel (John Marshall – Atlanta), and Brian Tamanaha (Washington University in St. Louis). Here is my initial post:

We founded Law School Transparency in 2009 with a pretty basic goal: to spotlight and reform the presentation of law school employment information. In no trivial sense, law schools and the ABA Section of Legal Education were not fulfilling their responsibilities. Law schools were failing to adequately inform their future students. The Section of Legal Education was failing to adequately protect consumers with its accreditation standards, which law schools were more than happy to hide behind as accepted practice.

To a large extent, although strides have been made within the Section of Legal Education to protect consumers, these failings persist. (In a later post, I will explain how.) They signal, along with the fact that there were such significant failures prior to the national attention, much greater problems with law school operations. Law schools are simply not consumer oriented.

With this in mind, we are ready to announce the next phase of Law School Transparency: attempting to reimagine legal education. This has three core parts.

  • Structural Transparency
  • Identifying Opportunities for Improvement
  • Unbreaking the Broken Model

Three common-sense goals color an undeniably difficult process. First, the cost of obtaining a legal education must be substantially reduced. Second, students must have the opportunity to make choices after graduation and must have economic mobility throughout their careers. Third, the education model must meet the needs of students, the legal profession, and clients.

Structural Transparency

This part focuses on understanding the cost structure of providing legal education in the United States. Reducing the cost of obtaining a law degree requires understanding the nuances of the law school model, where the money comes from, and where the money goes. Some of these facts may come from examining public documents like law schools’ Form 990s and recent reports on legal education, but additional transparency is needed. Law schools need to open their books, explain those books, and do so truthfully and in good faith.

Identifying Opportunities for Improvement

Once the facts are on the table, those who are interested in reducing the cost of legal education can identify opportunities for improving the law school model. This introduces a normative inquiry into what it means to provide value.

Like the Section of Legal Education Outcome Measures Committee, we believe that the focus must center on outcomes. Law school should add value in two related ways.

First, law schools should produce graduates who can do things they couldn’t do prior to law school. Learning outcomes must be scrutinized with due consideration to how well graduates serve employers and clients. It is one thing to teach something well, and another to teach something relevant. The report is a great start, though it will be important to generate the discussion among all stakeholders—something the committee admitted it had trouble sparking.

Second, law schools should produce graduates who successfully enter the workforce able to repay law school loans. Based on the report, this was not considered. The committee acknowledges that costs will likely rise after retooling the accreditation standards, but it does not demonstrate any concern for whether education is affordable. I am hopeful that participants in this forum will discuss how this crucial element could possibly have gone unaddressed.

Unbreaking the Broken Model

It’s important to synthesize old and new information about how law schools educate their students. Ultimately, the product of these efforts will help determine the most appropriate, substantive changes to the U.S. legal education model. There is very real pressure to do a better job for students and employers, both of whom can be viewed as consumers of legal education. In making these changes, it will be essential that access and quality are not sacrificed.

How best to achieve the goals outlined above will be a matter of important debate. But regardless of how we manage to eventually unbreak the law school model, it’s clear that change must come. Legal education reform requires a significant commitment by all stakeholders—not just those who currently spend time teaching—to consider why and how we need to reimagine legal education.