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.