Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Law School Should Remain Accessible to All

June 7, 2012

Law School Should Remain Accessible to All

            The legal profession and, in roughly the last 110 years or so, law schools have always been a route to advancement in America.  At the presidential level, lawyers include, among others, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Lincoln, Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon, Clinton and Obama.  The numbers of state and federal legislators who have been lawyers are legion.  The same for governors.  Many high corporate officials have been lawyers.  And none of this is even to mention that lawyers are prominent at professional and civic levels ranging from Wall Street to small firms. 

            So it is important that law schools and the law remain open to, remain a rite of advancement for, the middle and lower economic classes.  But such access is increasingly difficult to come by.  The reasons have to do with elitism, failure to teach students what they need to know in order to practice, and costs.  The elitism has been with us for scores of years.  The failure to teach the skills of practice have been with us almost as long.  The staggering costs (tuitions) are a more recent phenomenon.  All of this, and much more, is discussed in a new book by Brian Tamanaha, formerly a dean of the St. John’s Law School and now a law professor at Washington University of St. Louis.  Many of Tamanaha’s criticism and suggestions mirror the views and practices of the Massachusetts School of Law since its inception in 1988.

            The criticisms made of law schools include the following:  law professors’ salaries are very high (sometimes ranging into the mid three hundred thousand dollar range or averaging over $250,000).  They are far higher than any other academic fields except medicine.  In part due to very high salaries, law school tuitions are very high -- often being between $35,000 and more than $50,000 per year.  Law professors teach few hours of class, making it necessary to have more professors in each school, which again pushes up tuitions.  Law professors are entirely research oriented (although their research is of little or no benefit to students); they have very little experience in practice, lack knowledge of the arts and skills of practice, and cannot teach such skills to students though most students wish to become practicing lawyers.  In pursuit of higher US News rankings, law schools seek students with, and give available financial assistance to, students with high LSAT scores.  This forces other, “lower ranked” students, who pay full tuitions, to in effect pay the way of the students with high LSATs.  Again in pursuit of high US News rankings, some law schools have told falsehoods about their students’ LSAT scores, undergraduate grade point averages, or starting salaries after graduation.  Law schools have failed to prepare students for bar examinations.  By increasing tuitions to astronomical levels, law schools have made it necessary for students to take on very high amounts of debt, often ranging between $100,000 and $135,000.  These amounts of debt play hob with students’ lives after they graduate.

            A way to cure these problems, and to make legal education and its associated social and economic mobility available to middle class and lower class students, is to reverse the current practices (as our school has done).  Professors should have extensive, and often continuing, experience in practice, teach the arts and skills of practice to students.  Professors teach reasonable numbers of hours, not low amounts of hours.  They should focus on good teaching, rather than on research of little or no value to students.  They should earn good but not astonishingly huge salaries.  Schools should eschew the inevitably elitist LSAT.  They should prepare students for the bar examination.  And, by use of these and similar techniques, tuition should and can be kept low – it can be kept to between 15 and 20 thousand dollars per year, instead of not 35 or 40 or 45 or 50 thousand dollars per year.