College Guide


November 21, 2012 2:12 PM Blow Up the Law Schools

By Daniel Luzer


The declining number of people taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) every year is a good indication that something probably needs to change in the law school market. In a few years a lot more college graduates are going to conclude it just isn’t worth it.

Maybe law schools need to change how they operate, argues David Fontana, associate professor of law at George Washington University Law School, in a book review he wrote for The New Republic:

Law schools are… simply “failing.” They offer only a one-size-fits-all law school education that does not teach many law students what they should learn and is also incredibly expensive.
The problems affect almost all law schools because law schools are required to be more similar to one another than different. There are at least two major reasons for this. First, the American Bar Association (ABA) decides which law schools can be accredited, and it requires that law schools primarily employ tenured or tenure-track professors. Sixty-five percent of professors in American universities are employed in positions not eligible for tenure, but any law school that tried to match that proportion could lose its accreditation. As a result, law schools shoulder the cost of a permanent crop of highly compensated professors. Law schools also lose the flexibility to shuffle professors in and out as pedagogical and scholarly needs change.

The more serious existential crisis, however, is that law school just costs too much money to justify, because the job market is so bad. “Since 2010, applications to law schools are down nearly 25 percent. Only about two-thirds of law school graduates are employed in jobs requiring passage of the bar examination, and 12 percent of graduates are unemployed.”

This is a problem that requires “thoughtful examination” of the American law school, says Fontana. Thoughtful examination? How about just some healthy destruction?


It might be time not just to rely on law schools to change themselves, but to encourage or even require them to change. Universities can signal the importance of reform by creating financial incentives for reform and by indirectly overseeing it. Tenure standards might be raised to permit law schools to help ensure that new salary obligations are made to scholars who will remain productive even after tenure. And it might be time for even the most basic of support for legal research to come from a law school equivalent of the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health—or even from the central university administration funding legal research—in order to impose a little healthy competition. These are ideas worth exploring, if not necessarily adopting at all schools in all situations.

But I suspect “a little healthy competition” would only result in “a little improvement.” None of these changes Fortana proposes are terribly controversial,though they’d surely be opposed by the law schools themselves.

Here’s a better thought: just kill off all of those low tier law schools, which don’t really help much in terms of advancing legal thought or helping graduates secure good jobs.

We can do this relatively easily by simply not requiring a law degree in order to practice law. Just let any college graduate take the bar exam offered his state. If he can pass he should be good to go. This appears to already be the situation in several states, and there’s no indication that lawyers who don’t go to law school are any worse than those who do.

Ultimately America’s top law schools would continue to exist under such reforms (which would be state-level, not federal) because surely America’s top firms and best clerkships could continue to require law school degrees. But most legal jobs aren’t prestigious positions for which it’s appropriate to assume five or six figures worth of debt. The bachelor’s degree and a passing bar score should be good enough for entry into the profession.

Fontana writes, “the American law school has a proud tradition, one that law schools around the world have imitated. This tradition is worth saving.”

Sure it is, but let’s keep this “proud tradition” in perspective. America’s law schools can continue to uphold that tradition if they’re so inclined, but most law schools aren’t upholding much but a debt-based institution that’s required only because of excessively burdensome barriers to entry into the legal profession. Make it easier, and fairer, to enter the law; that’s the real way to introduce meaningful competition. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Keith M Ellis on November 21, 2012 7:14 PM:

    This is true, but it's true for the majority of all graduate education, as well.

    Insofar as students invest in expensive advanced education in these fields expecting them to be vocational preparation for available jobs, they will be hugely disappointed and hugely indebted; and everyone who advises them and profits from their education (that being vast swathes of academia) are essentially doing only a more respectable version of what the for-profit mills are doing.

    Insofar as students invest in expensive advanced education in these fields (or any other) as education for its own sake, and not primarily vocational with the expectation of employment, then that's their own rightful choice and in many respects an admirable one with a long tradition.

    The former demands reform which would arguably mean far fewer schools and admissions into those schools. The latter does not. The conflict can only be resolved, if it can be resolved, by no longer misleading students into believing that these graduate and professional degrees represent guaranteed (or even likely) employment. Enrollment will drop, schools will close, and what we remain will be those students who will actually find jobs and those students who won't mind if they don't.

    Regardless, this is all just as true about 4/5 of all the graduate programs in this country as it is about law schools.

  • joe on November 21, 2012 7:23 PM:

    only about 50 percent of all law school grads over the last 40 years have been able to carve out a living as a lawyer (775K people working as lawyers according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and 1.4 million law school graduates of working age (according to the ABA). That is about 55 percent. However, the real story is much worse that because recent law school grads have had much worse success getting lawyers jobs because the field is much more overcrowded than it was 20 years ago. These days, maybe 1/3 of current grads are able to get work as lawyers.

  • Ebenezer Scrooge on November 21, 2012 8:12 PM:

    I'm not sure that elite law schools will survive open bar exams. Most elite legal employers view law school as a waste of time past the first year. And even the first year is basically language acquisition, for which immersion works pretty well.

    Elite legal employers already hire top college students as paralegals. It's a much better form of recruiting than the law school interview process, which is opaque to employers: a transcript and a short interview. In contrast, you get to know your paralegals pretty well within a year or so. If law schools lose their monopoly, there is no reason elite legal employers can't hire paralegals, teach 'em the bar, and hire the better ones as associates.

    IMO, any bright kid can take the bar cram course over the summer, skip law school, and have a good shot at passing the bar exam. (I should make a grant request; this hypothesis is easily testable with about $250K, if I can find a state bar examiner that will administer the test to non-law grads.) Kids who aren't so bright need a lot more preparation. My guess is that they will still need something that resembles law school.

  • Patience on November 22, 2012 10:09 AM:

    I find it close to impossible to believe that reforming faculty costs presents a big problem in making law schools run better.

  • Barbara on November 23, 2012 9:58 PM:

    Law school could either be shorter (two years) or it could include a year of intensive practical learning (more similar to medical school) but to think that law takes no specialized training seems a bit out there. Look, almost any profession could be done by a smart and highly motivated person who commits to self-study. The real issue here isn't law schools -- it's the escalation using debt to pay for degrees of all kinds, but especially professional schools. Having said that, it does seem to me that many law schools are ossified, with professors who don't contribute much in the way of thinking about legal issues or solutions to legal problems.

  • Mr X on November 27, 2012 3:01 PM:

    Is that a picture of the WTC collapsing on the main page link to this article?

  • DB on November 28, 2012 8:34 AM:

    @Mr X: It sure as hell is, and it's OUTRAGEOUSLY inappropriate.

  • T-Rex on December 03, 2012 7:43 PM:

    It has now been over a week since this article was posted, and you are still using the photograph of WTC 2 collapsing on 9-11-2001 to illustrate your title. The previous two posters are not the only ones to call your attention to the fact that this is obscenely offensive. Hey, why not show the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, or a few gruesome scenes of corpses in Nazi death camps (Starve the law schools to death) or, to use a more recent image, the flooded streets of New York and New Jersey with the caption "Drown law schools in a bathtub?" To paraphrase Dave Letterman, massive human tragedies just don't crack me up the way they used to.

    Oh, by the way, this blog does count on contributions for its existence, does it not? I ask because I have decisions to make about annual giving.

  • David E. Ortman on December 04, 2012 12:45 AM:

    Washington State has a Law Clerk Program. Find an attorney or Judge as tutor for 30 hours of paid work a week for four years. Then go try and pass the Bar Exam. It works in Washington State. "Law Clerks" have been passing the bar exam for decades.

  • Corbin Supak on December 06, 2012 12:31 PM:

    I am solely at this article to likewise condemn the use of the WTC explosion as the picture icon for this article. Please stop embarrassing this publication.