A Recipe for Disaster – Killing Law Schools in Favor of an Undergraduate Education

The Wall Street Journal published an article today called “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Law Schools.”  The basic premise is that the costs are outweighing the benefits.  The authors claim that the total cost of going to law school is around $275,000 which leads to higher legal fees to citizens as it constrains supply of lawyers and those who do graduate must charge high hourly rates to repay their student loans.  The solution according to the article?  Kill all the law schools and make it an undergraduate level program. While I agree that the costs of law school have gotten out of hand in comparison to the real opportunities post graduation for many students, this article is wrong on a number of its conclusions.

First, to suggest that there is a supply constrain on lawyers is laughable.  Whether I’m wearing my client hat where I hire lawyers, or my professor hat (I am an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado), there aren’t nearly enough jobs to place all the lawyers this country is graduating.  In fact, the amount of applications to law schools has been INCREASING over the past few years and this is despite the costs going up and the number of jobs going down.  I’m shocked that the authors, one of whom is a professor and another an attorney at a large law firm don’t see these trends.  Perhaps given the rankings of their institutions these realities don’t effect them, but to the rest of us, it’s quite apparent that the system doesn’t suffer from a lack of supply.

Secondly, the idea that one can train good lawyers out of an undergraduate program is misguided.  Clients pay lawyers for judgment, first and foremost.  It isn’t about wrote laws and rules, but rather, whom do you trust to be mature and wise enough to help you with your issues.  I’ve always thought that law schools do a disservice by allowing students to go straight from undergraduate school to law, when they should be copying the business school model of pressuring prospective students to have real-life work experience before attending a graduate program.  As both a client, a professor and former attorney, I believe that on average, those who have some real life experience are better suited to attend law school and become lawyers.  In any event, I can’t imagine wanting to pay for a 21 year old recently-graduated lawyer.  What experience in life do they really have?  Even if a student goes straight though, at least they are 25 years which is a different world than post undergraduate.

The authors talk about paid apprenticeships, but this still doesn’t get around the problem that lawyers would then have no work experience outside of the law.  Simply put, I don’t believe the average graduate has enough maturity to be a lawyer.

The authors also put for thehe concept that we would still have JD programs alongside undergraduate programs.  This makes no sense to me.  At best, we create a two class legal system between the “haves and have nots” and at the end, I don’t see market economics (price) differentiating, rather some folks will get good legal services and others will not.  Passing the bar exam doesn’t mean one is ready to be a lawyer.

Finally, the $275,000 is based on the assumption that actual school costs $150,000 and that with opportunity costs for “bright students with attractive career opportunities” the number, fully loaded is $275,000.  I would have stopped at the $150,000.  yes, that number alone is too high, but the rest is a complete fudge factor guess.  As previously mentioned, many students (maybe most) don’t have a better option than going to law school and thus the opportunity costs are a made up number.

I do applaud their ideas that a legal education should be more well rounded.  At CU, we are actively engaged at trying to bring more diverse subject matter into the classroom.  This is a key for going forward legal education.

In short, I agree with the problem, but the solution doesn’t work here.

  • Agreed. Feels like this article is written for pure shock value.

    I think a much smarter solution would be making law school two years instead of three, demanding some work experience from applicants, and a greater emphasis on developing job-related legal skills (rather than analyzing case law). 

    In my opinion, the greatest benefit of undergraduate educations lies in teaching students that they have a choice about what they can think about (espoused pretty strongly in David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech). Law school, on the other hand, provides a way of thinking about a topic. Conflating the two would be a disservice.

    So, of course, law schools should stay alive but they should be restructured (much like the business model of law firms that hire their graduates).

    And, I say all this as a lawyer who left the law while still holding quite a large law school debt balance. 

    Great post, Jason – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    Killing all law schools is definitely an extreme approach, but the issues raised in the article are important and need to be taken more seriously by law schools. 

    I am currently completing my final year of law school and I have grown quite disillusioned by the old conventions of legal education. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s all broken. Indeed, the core courses taught in the first year – and the fundamental teachings of how to navigate through various sources of law and how to “think like a lawyer” – are invaluable for a new law student. However, there is not nearly enough emphasis placed on practical knowledge, on real-life lawyering, and on providing students with experiences (i.e. externships) that will truly prepare graduates for what awaits them in their professional career, particularly in this difficult job market. 

    I consider myself fortunate to have landed an articling position at a big corporate law firm (which is exactly what I want to be doing), but a lot of my colleagues are finishing up their degree without any job prospects nor clear professional direction (so from my experience, speaking of a supply shortage seems completely misguided). In any event, in many ways I feel like I acquired much more knowledge relevant to my career path in just a short summer internship at a law firm than I did throughout 3 years of law school.

    I don’t want to come off with a position as strong as that communicated in the WSJ article, but the shortcomings of the conventional model of legal education need to be raised and discussed more seriously. It’s time to challenge the norms and think outside of a box that is seemingly outdated. 

    • Anonymous

      Totally agree. But I think it needs to be done within the context of law schools, not undergrad. I just don’t think humans are ready at age 21 to be lawyers.

      Congrats on the job, I know how tough it is out there.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks Jason. I actually just read a great article yesterday on law.com (“Are Law Schools Stuck in the Past”). The Association of American Law Schools just held their annual meeting and these issues were hot topics. There were some compelling ideas put forward. Here’s an excerpt (you can access the full article here – 

        “I think they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Susan Hackett, chief executive officer of consulting firm Legal Executive Leadership and former general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel. “The discussion seems to be, ‘Let’s add a Thursday evening extra-credit course on the legal profession that meets for a couple of hours.’ That’s just tweaking around the edges.”Instead, Hackett suggested a re-engineering of law curricula to include an initial phase of core courses followed by a year of executive education-style classes covering topics including business skills, legal technology and behavioral management. The final phase would involve clinics or externships in law firms, legal departments, government agencies or nonprofit organizations. These could replace the traditional law firm summer associateships and would be more substantive, she said.

  • Anonymous

    This must have been what David Letterman felt like, after years of making fun of the talk show institution, he somehow sort of became part of the talk show  institution.   It is an odd posture for me to defend legal education when I’ve critiqued it and pushed it in new directions for some time.    Thank you for the thoughtful post, Jason.  Agree with your notes about this concerning the importance of judgment.   Producing more ill-equipped attorneys does not strike me as a healthy turn for society overall or the clients that these attorneys would serve.  
    McGinnis and Mangus’ point concerning the value of access to justice for poor and marginalized populations is well taken.  But I’m dubious that their solution would remedy the situation:  undergrads emerge from school with debt loads that makes public service difficult, too.  Instead,  I’d prefer to see restructuring that encourages qualified, well trained attorneys to pursue public interested work.  For example, significant expansion of loan forgiveness / debt repayment programs for lawyers who conduct public interest work with disadvantaged and underrepresented populations would be a better solution.   My instinct is that student loan reform is coming sooner or later.  I’d like to see public interest work repayment as part of any serious reform efforts. 

  • CS

    Three points, here.

    1. In most countries, law degrees are undergraduate degrees.  (Non-law majors can sometimes complete a conversion course to move into law.)  I’ve heard some UK lawyers say that the average newly-minted US lawyer has much better judgment than a newly-minted UK lawyer.  They indeed attribute this to the fact that the JD is a graduate degree.  Nonetheless, I have to think this evens out over time.  Certainly there is no shortage of talented UK-qualified lawyers in the City of London.

    2. In theory, I agree with you that law schools should copy the B-school model of forcing applicants to work a few years before becoming lawyers.  Trouble is, what’s in it for the law schools?  They get paid later and thus suffer from cash flow problems.  Moreover, a lot of people who would otherwise have applied to law school will see that business is much more exciting than law, and they’ll abandon their plans to become lawyers.  (This is also the problem with the suggestions below saying that law schools each things like finance and organizational behavior.  The law students will realize they don’t want to be lawyers and will acquire the skills to do something else.  This results in fewer paying customers over time.)

    3. Right now we indeed have an oversupply of new lawyers. But that could change very easily. Remember the discussions of “NY to $180K,” which even seeped into pop culture via THE SOPRANOS? That was only four years ago. Remember the way Gunderson gazumped the NY firms back in 2000? If you’re bullish on the US economy — and I am, even for next year, and certainly in the long run — it’s easy to think that a seller’s market will return.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not sure that there would be fewer customers over time. I get the theoretical economic analysis, but there have always been plenty of students for law schools. Certainly the top 80% of schools have no problems filling out their classes. Where I think you could argue an advantage to the law schools is that the newly minted lawyers would be better equipped, be more successful and could donate more money afterwards.
      Or perhaps I’m completely wrong, in which I still think it would be good to have less lawyers than more. There are just not enough good jobs for the students being churned out every year