Encouraging Congress to Examine the Dramatic Increase in the Cost of Law School

Encouraging Congress to Examine the Dramatic Increase in the Cost of Law School

The themes of the recent article, "Is Law School a Losing Game?", by David Segal which appeared in the New York Times are:

  • 1) law schools play fast and loose with the truth in providing information about how many of their graduates have jobs nine months after graduation and what those salaries are
  • 2) Law school tuition has grossly outpaced the rate of inflation over the last 20 years
  • 3) The ability of students to obtain loans has led to extremely high debt upon graduation
  • 4) Students are unable to find jobs paying enough so they can make the loan payments
  • 5) The U.S. News seems unwilling to demand better data from law schools.

 However, the article only scratches the surface of the defects, deficiencies, deceptions and dysfunction of legal education in today's traditional law schools. 

A little over a year ago, I read the United States Government Accountability Office Report to Congressional Committees on HIGHER EDUCATION Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access October 2009. I was not impressed. Those drafting the report seemed to simply accept the statements of law school officials that ABA accreditation has no affect on the cost of law school but the change to a more hands-on resource-intensive approach to legal education has affected cost. The law school officials also said that competition among schools for higher U.S. News rankings reportedly have affected costs. Admitting that they strive for high ranking in this defective and highly criticized magazine's attempt to compare law schools is damning in itself.

After I read the report, I drafted this Memorandum which was forwarded by my Congressman to the committees addressed in the memorandum. (I should also point out that as of this date, January 23, 2011, no one from either of the committees has contacted me.)

MEMORANDUM

TO: U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP)
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor
FROM: Ronald W. Fox, Esq. admin@ronaldwfox.com
Career Planning for Lawyers - Lawyer Satisfaction Blog
DATE: November 2, 2009
RE: Issues Related to the Dramatic Increase in the Cost of Law School

The impetus for my writing this was the New GAO Report, "Higher Education Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access" and briefings made to your committees.

The purpose of this Memorandum is to encourage your committees to solicit the views and opinions of others who can present to you a more in-depth analysis of the reasons why the rate of increase of the cost of law school has been so much higher than the rate of inflation and the cost of living over the last two decades.

There has been criticism of legal education in the traditional law schools ever since the day when Christopher Langdell instituted the case method at Harvard law School over 100 years ago but it reached its peak in 1992.

In that year, the MacCrate Report, also known as the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar Report of the Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap - Legal Education and Professional Development - An Educational Continuum was published. The task force, composed of prominent lawyers, judges and law professors, strongly criticized law schools for failing to teach eight of the ten fundamental skills needed to practice law and for not stressing the four fundamental values of the legal profession including the promotion of justice and the importance of taking positions consistent with one's personal values.

The report also described as inadequate the traditional method of teaching the two skills it does teach in that it does not allow for the students to perform and be evaluated to ascertain the extent to which the students understand the concept presented.

The same ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (which has been designated as the agency that accredits law schools) recently issued a Bar Report of the Outcome Measures Committee which says law schools should shift in assessment from the conceptual knowledge accumulated by students to the assessment of practical competencies (professional skills) and that law schools should incorporate ongoing assessments and other formative techniques to encourage and evaluate a student's development of tasks.

Innumerable articles prior to and during this current economic downturn have been written demanding that law schools do more to prepare their students for the practice of law.

Tying together this failure to teach with the increase in the cost of law schools is Rethinking Legal Education in Hard Times: The Recession, Practical Legal Education, and the New Job Market a thoughtful paper by Daniel Thies, a student at Harvard Law School and the law student member of the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar submitted for the Council's June 2009 retreat. After describing the law schools' tepid actions in offering skills courses but stubbornly refusing to reduce the emphasis on academic research (see B. Barriers to Reform and C. Rethinking Priorities: The Questionable Value of Legal Scholarship Today, pages 18-22) concludes:

The economic recession presents a unique opportunity for legal education to shift its priorities. Rather than using student money to subsidize academic research from full-time professors, successful schools will need to seek new ways to train students in practical skills. Only then will schools continue to be able to attract qualified students. There are many different ways that a school can achieve this end, and no two schools' solution will look the same. As long as prospective students have sufficient information and schools have the flexibility to try different solutions, however, the law schools with the best programs will begin to rise to the top. Legal educators have spent much of the last century thinking about how to integrate practical training into the law school curriculum. To echo the MacCrate Report, "[i]n sum . . . the time has come to put the pieces together."

Another source of helpful information on how and why law school costs have risen unnecessarily can be found in The Deeply Unsatisfactory Nature of Legal Education Today - A Self Study Report On The Problems Of Legal Education And On The Steps The Massachusetts School of Law Has Taken To Overcome Them published by the Massachusetts School of Law, Lawrence Velvel, Founder and Dean. While I am not at all aware of what is needed in a law library, the report looks at the how outdated views of what should be in a law library (perhaps pursuant to ABA accreditation requirements) increase law school costs. The most significant point in the report related to costs is the systematic withdrawal of law school faculty into academic research and scholarship. Not only is it of little educational value to students, it also means that the faculty is unavailable for administrative duties which would be a benefit to students such as career counseling, course advice, admissions, etc. That translates into the need to hire more and more staff to take over duties that faculty have taken in the past.

I have been deeply concerned about the defects in legal education from the day I started as the Public Interest Adviser at Harvard Law School in 1984. I graduated from that school in 1963 and spent the next 20 years practicing law and designing programs aimed at delivering legal services to the public. There is another negative consequence of diverting funds to academic scholarship and failing to prepare students for the practice of law. In a deadly serious satire requesting that I be appointed law school industry czar, I point out how law schools have failed not only their students but also the public as in selective schools 95% of the graduates take positions representing the wealthiest 1% of the society while the 45,000,000 least wealthy in the US cannot retain the services of a lawyer for 80% of their legal problems.

Most of the posts in my blog are directed at the defects in legal education and the diversion of law students by law schools to positions in large law firms. The cause of this misplacement are widely known: the failures of the law schools to teach skills, values and the existence of small law firms combined with the huge debt load taken by so many students,

Here is a post I wrote a few months ago, a simple way to reduce law school costs and debt by one-third entitled Envisioning Law Students Eliminating the Wasted Third Year of Law School In it I propose:

There is one significant aspect of legal education that CAN be significantly improved overnight; i.e., the extraordinarily high tuition that law schools charge. The resulting high debt load has, in the past, pressured students to take positions in large law firms that held no appeal to many of them except for the salary. Today even many of those with offers do not expect to have enough income from their positions to live on. What is the solution? Eliminate the third year of law school and roll-back, just like Wal-Mart might do, the expected debt by 33%. Over the years I have often talked to students, faculty and staff. In addition many articles have been written on the subject. Rarely has anyone come up with a justification for law students staying in law school for the third year. With general agreement that the law schools take three years NOT to prepare students for the practice of law, it hardly seems that law students or their careers would be negatively affected if they only devoted two years to NOT being prepared to practice law. Estimates vary about how much time would be required to teach students how to think like a lawyer. One semester may not be sufficient but a more reasonable estimate would be 2-4 semesters.

In addition, there is a reason why universities can refer to their law schools as "cash cows". One of the arguments in favor of establishing a public law school in Massachusetts has been that it would boost the state's revenues. Here is my post on why we don't need a public law school.

Many others write often and well about the defects of legal education including the greed and self-interest of the law schools that are behind their consistent increases in tuition and related costs.

Chuck Newton, a lawyer in Huston, writes often about the failings of law school Here is just one of his posts on his blog The Law School Tuition Bubble. Has Logical Reasoning Abandoned Our Law Schools?

Here is a related article by John DiPippa, Dean William H. Bowen School of Law, University of Arkansas at Little Rock A Change - in Legal Education - is Gonna Come (with apologies to Sam Cook) where he refers to the current education forces: i.e, calls for fundamental legal education reform gaining momentum, the ABA moving toward outcome-based accreditation standards and students demanding different approaches and wanting to see value for their tuition dollars. He concludes that the "salad days" for law faculties may be over.

Law schools have in many ways failed their students and the public. One and only one aspect has been the runaway and unrestrained raises in tuition over the last two decades. Much of the increase has been unnecessary. As noted above, I suggest that if you would like to investigate further the topic of why law school costs have risen so dramatically, you review the sources above and contact some of the writers and scholars involved. Should anyone want to discuss any of the issues raised in this Memorandum further with me (or any lawyer career related topic), as noted above, I can be reached at admin@ronaldwfox.com.