Is The Legal Ed. Crisis Real?

Erwin Chemerinsky and Carrie Menkel-Meadow's article in the NYTimes this morning is interesting for its take on the legal education crisis.

The authors believe that legal education can use reform, like all higher education in general, but the 'crisis' talk is overblown and may lead to unnecessary reform that will make legal training worse in the long run.

"The claims of imminent catastrophe always focus on three things: the problematic job market for law graduates, the increased cost of legal education and the decrease in applications for law schools."

As to the job market, "[a]ccording to the Association for Legal Career Professionals, as recently as 2007, close to 92 percent of law-school graduates reported being employed in a paid, full-time position nine months after graduation. True, the employment figures had dropped by 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, but only to 84.7 percent. The number of graduates who are employed is higher if the measure is over a longer interval than just the nine months after graduation. And with the economy improving and law-school enrollments shrinking, there will be more jobs available for new law graduates."

As to the increased cost of legal education, "[t]he supposed crisis of the increased cost of attending law school is, of course, part of the overall increase in the costs of higher education. Since 1978, the cost of going to college has increased 1,120 percent (far outpacing the rate of inflation). Law schools specifically should do more to provide need-based financial aid to students — rather than what most law schools have been doing in recent years, which is to shift toward financial aid based primarily on merit in order to influence their rankings."

Finally, as to the decrease in law-school applications, "the talk ... overlooks the fact that the number of applications has fluctuated for decades. Many law schools have reduced the size of their classes, to be sure, but this is simply to balance supply and demand."

As the authors note, the "chief concern is that the claims about a crisis in legal education will be the impetus for reforms that will do more harm than good." One common suggestion "is to reduce law school to two years. The profession needs law schools to produce lawyers who are better prepared to practice law, not less well trained. That would be impossible in two-thirds of the time. If law school were of just two years’ duration, the first things to be cut would be clinical education and interdisciplinary courses, which are the best innovations since we went to law school in the 1970s."

What law schools must do is continue to train individuals to "serve as legal 'problem solvers,' not only in the board room or courtroom, but in all areas of civil society — our legislatures, administrative agencies, schools, workplaces and beyond."


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