Whether or not law schools are in a crisis, it is certainly true that legal education currently faces a number of significant challenges. The fundamental problem is a lack of consensus over what the problem is. Legal educators and regulators are developing well-intended but inadequate responses to the symptoms, not the causes of law school woes. In addition to identifying the problem, this Article discusses potential reforms. Financial issues represent a significant source of much of the current criticisms face by law schools today. Tuition rates have increased at a pace far outstripping the steep hikes seen at universities as a whole. And the U.S. News and World Reports rankings incentivize the expenditures largely responsible for the tuition increases. The consequence of high tuition is student loan debt averaging out at over $100,000, a real problem given the oversaturated market. Perversely, despite the oversupply of attorneys, legal costs remain high, resulting in a continued undersupply of actual legal services. The current accreditation process, flawed in several important respects, contributes to this asymmetry in supply and demand. A threshold problem lies in the composition of the Council, which consists primarily of lawyers and judges with little or no experience as legal educators and who cannot possibly make disinterested judgments on matters where their own livelihood is so directly implicated. Additionally, the current system substitutes detailed regulation of educational inputs for more direct measures of educational outputs. As a pedagogical matter, the Socratic method leaves much to be desired. And the traditional approach pays insufficient attention to practical skills. While administrators consider cost a bar to increased clinical offerings, not all experiential, practice-oriented initiatives require additional costly investments. Nonetheless, as long as increased emphasis on practical learning offers little rewards for law schools and faculty, change is unlikely. Finally, legal education fails to foster strong values concerning professional responsibility and professional identity. Most schools relegate the subject to a single required course, which focuses on the rules of professional conduct that are tested on the bar exam. Such oversights reflect deep-seated skepticism about the importance of professional ethics in professional education, underestimating the role that broader coverage can play in developing ethical judgment. Reform is necessary. Redistributive solutions are required to cure the problem of crushing student debt, and changes to the rankings methodology and law school accreditation process would help law schools cut costs. Fundamental changes in the structure of law schools could prompt similarly fundamental changes in their curricula, with increased emphasis placed on practical experience and ethical responsibilities. This is not a modest agenda. The cost, design, and reward structure of contemporary legal education falls seriously short in meeting the needs of students and society, and the chorus of “crisis” rhetoric should remind us of our obligation to do better.
Deborah L. Rhode
Legal Education: Rethinking the Problem, Reimagining the Reforms,
40 Pepp. L. Rev.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/plr/vol40/iss2/6