The $50,000 Law School

Law School

“I believe…that law schools would be wise to think about making it two years instead of three…in the first two years, young people are learning in the classroom. In the third year, they’d be better off clerking or working for a firm…Now, the question is can law schools maintain quality and keep good professors and sustain themselves without that third year? My suspicion is if they thought creatively about it, they probably could.”

Last August, as thousands of young people started their law school education, President Obama made that statement at a town hall in New York. The President was giving a speech so he didn’t include the details of his two-year proposal. However, several law schools have already started an accelerated law school track, including our very own Northwestern Law.

Can Two Year Law Schools Be The Future?

In addition, numerous commentators have opined on how two year law schools could become the norm. Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency proposes that law schools require students to take undergraduate pre-requisites in accounting, statistics, and persuasion. This could be a good idea; it seems to acknowledge the wide range of lawyers, including those who spend more of their life as business people rather than litigators. Another idea from McEntee – move all black letter law teaching online. This could also conceivably work: students across the country already learn the same black letter law now and many of them relearn it later for the bar exam. To take the idea even further, students might take a multiple choice multistate exam for their 1L end of year exams.

Problematically however, many of the current two year programs still cost the same as three year programs with the added benefit of entering the workforce a year earlier and foregoing a semester of education-related living expenses. But could a two-year JD cost less, say, $100,000 less?

Jack Graves, law professor at Touro College, writes in his article, A More Cost-Effective Model for Legal Education, that law schools should cost the same as a the median salary for a new lawyer – $50,000. He proposes breaking legal education down into distinct stages. Stage 1 focuses on doctrinal education, legal research, writing and professional responsibility. It takes place over 12 calendar months. Total cost? $20,000. After Stage 1, law students can take the bar exam. Successful completion of the bar exam does not lead to licensure but rather to Stage 2, a 12 month program focused on the practice of law, including simulations, clinics, externships and, if desired, additional doctrinal education. Total cost? $30,000. Result? A $50,000 law school.

How Does This Effect The Faculty?

Of course, we’re circling an enormous elephant in the room – the faculty. Faculty salaries aren’t the sole reason law schools cost so much, but they are a very big part of it. Even more telling is one estimate that a law school pays $100,000 per year for a tenured faculty member to write a single law review article. And given our recent review of law review, it begs the question whether law review writing is still a necessary contribution to modern legal practice.

That perhaps is the crux of this debate – the role of legal education in our society. As this Bloomberg article explains, the modern law school was created precisely to get away from the black letter technical rules and apprenticeship model used in the old days. “[L]aw students shouldn’t simply learn practical strategies … Rather, they should have an education that also included economics, sociology, political theory and philosophy.” Why? Because “[p]ractitioners will go out into a society where all is not well, and they had better be equipped to think broadly, critically and independently about it.”

Conversely, look at this perspective from the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education:

“A given law school can have multiple purposes. But the core purpose common to all law schools is to prepare individuals to provide legal and related services in a professionally responsible fashion. This elementary fact is often minimized … The balance between doctrinal instruction and focused preparation for the delivery of legal services needs to shift still further toward developing the competencies and professionalism required of people who will deliver services to clients.”

Can a $50,000 law school balance doctrinal education with practice-readiness? Perhaps. However, as the President recognized, it will require numerous changes at every level of the law school establishment. And while it may lower the debt burden on American law students, and may even turn out practice-ready lawyers, it might leave us with the same questions that the President raised in his speech. Can law schools maintain quality? Can they keep talented faculty? Can they stay in business? And can they produce lawyers who both think and act within the tenets of professionalism? Those are questions we need to answer now.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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