[The Duncan School of Law] needs the seal of approval of the American Bar Association, the government-anointed regulator of law schools.
That means complying with a long list of standards that shape the composition of the faculty, the library and dozens of other particulars. The basic blueprint was established by elite institutions more than a century ago, and according to critics, it all but prohibits the law-school equivalent of the Honda Civic — a low-cost model that delivers.
Instead, virtually every one of the country’s 200 A.B.A.-accredited schools, from the lowliest to the most prestigious, has to build a Cadillac, or at least come close. Duncan’s library costs $750,000 a year to maintain — a bargain when compared with competitors. …
Duncan’s largest single cost is its faculty, which, as with most A.B.A.-accredited law schools, consumes about half its total budget. This is the only expense that Mr. Beckman declines to detail, other than to say that he has three adjuncts and 16 full-time professors. Adjuncts are basically part-timers and far less expensive. But the A.B.A. prohibits an adjuncts-only faculty by requiring that full-time faculty teach a major portion of the entire curriculum. The standards don’t come right out and state that tenure must be offered, but that is strongly implied. It’s also implied that these professors get time to produce scholarship, such as law review articles. This is expensive. It obligates schools to give researching professors lower teaching loads and hire yet more instructors to cover all the classes that students need.
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.
- Truth on the Market: The NYT on why law school is expensive (December 18, 2011)
- Nat'l Law Journal: Duncan School of Law denied accreditation (December 20, 2011)
- Volokh Conspiracy: The New York Times on ABA Accreditation of Law Schools (December 19, 2011)
- AmLaw Daily: ABA Regulations Don't Cause Tuition Increases, Law Schools Do (December 22, 2011)