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Higher Ed Bubble: Cutting the Fat from Law Schools

A word of advice for those toiling through law school: Skip the fancy electives.

The Wall Street Journal reports that law schools are coming under increasing scrutiny for “quirky” elective courses like “Understanding Obama” and “Bloodfueds.” These are almost always offered in the third (and final) year of law school and, unlike offerings during the first two years, do little or nothing to help students get a leg up in an extremely tough job market. In fact, many now argue that a third year of study may not even be necessary.

In a recent visit to the University of Wyoming this fall, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia didn’t go quite that far, but he did give students some advice:

But with tuition increasing, some critics of legal education have advocated abolishing the third year entirely, and presumably with it, classes that are considered unessential. Others have preached abstinence.

In a visit this fall to the University of Wyoming, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia urged students to avoid “frill” courses whose titles begin with “Law and…”

“Professors like certain subjects that they’re writing a book on, so they teach a course in that subject,” Justice Scalia said.

And at least one law firm agrees with Justice Scalia:

“If law schools want to employ the vast majority of graduating students then they should be offering mostly mainstream classes. I agree with Justice Scalia 100%: Stick to the basics,” said Robert Carangelo, hiring partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP.

Right on all counts. Law school is already a bad deal for most of those who apply. Schools should be doing everything they can to cut costs and streamline operations. Unfortunately, one year’s worth of tuition and fees represents a lot of money for a school to turn down.

And legal academics really do enjoy teaching courses that validate their own research, regardless of their value to the students who have to sit through their lectures. As one might expect, few of the professors interviewed by the Journal were receptive to the idea of nixing the third year or leaving out, say, classes on ancient Icelandic conflicts or the history of animal law.

Law schools, much to their discredit, are unlikely to shake up this state of affairs on their own (although some do seem to be making an effort). Until someone or something forces them to do it, students would be well advised to steer clear of frivolities that come with a high price tag. (All this advice makes much less sense at the most prestigious schools where cost is much less of a concern as the rewards of graduation tend to be significantly higher.)

But there’s hope for law professors who like teaching courses less focused on the nitty gritty aspects of the practice of law. What Americans normally think of as ‘education’ actually includes two very distinct ideas. There is the question of training — of acquiring the specific skills needed to get a specific job. This kind of education is going to have to get a lot more practical and focused in the United States. Struggling single parents trying to better themselves while raising kids don’t need a lot of unnecessary debt and classroom hours when what they really want is a license to practice law.

On the other hand, if we think about education — sharpening the mind, widening our capacity to process and understand new information, improving our ability to separate what matters from what doesn’t, and simply acquainting ourselves with more of the riches and the resources of the human tradition — the demand for this will only grow. On blogs, through ebooks, podcasts and online courses, people who have something interesting to say are going to find larger audiences than ever before. Figuring out how to build a broader, richer, deeper conversation about the law nad engaging the lay public as well as practicing attorneys in that discussion is a job the next generation of legal scholars and theorists will have to learn to do.

As a matter of equity we need to keep law school costs as low as possible. As a matter of social justice and the development of a civilization and a culture of law we need to bridge the gap between the legal academy and the intelligent lay public.

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