The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
First, Let’s Kill All the Law Schools

Once upon a time, a law degree could basically guarantee a decent-paying job and a nice suburban house. But all that has changed. Now, many law schools are fast becoming credentialing degree mills — and the expensive, three year degrees don’t guarantee legal jobs. Increasingly, people with law degrees work at jobs that don’t even require bachelor’s degrees.

This week, an editorial in the WSJ offered a commonsense solution for fixing the law school bubble: Make law an undergraduate major: “This option would reduce law school tuition to zero. And the three years of students going without income would be replaced by a year of paid apprenticeship and two years earning a living as a lawyer.”

They have done this in the Commonwealth countries for years and it wasn’t until around the turn of the 20th Century that America started making a three year graduate degree a bar for entry: Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln both managed to do pretty well for themselves without ever having set foot inside a law school classroom. Bringing back the “bachelor of laws” probably won’t guarantee the high income it once did, but you won’t have to give a pound of flesh for it either.

Some graduate programs in law — generally, the best and most prestigious ones — will survive. Most would convert to undergraduate programs, with the side benefit that more undergrads in other fields could take some basic law courses as well. Money and time will be saved, at no discernible cost to the public.

Published on January 21, 2012 11:03 am
  • SgtDad

    My Dad, my brother & I are all alumni of the same law school. Dad had a LLB & we have JD’s. Dad was a better lawyer than both of his sons.
    The really amazing thing is how little students learn in law school. After 7 years of education, one would think a law student would have read The Federalist at least once. Most haven’t & many have never even heard of it.

  • A

    What will be done with the vast resources in infrastructure or alumni relations, devoted to graduate study in law? Many of these law schools have strong, prestigious histories separate from the university at large.

  • Rhodium Heart

    I love 99 percent of your ideas, Professor Mead. This is the one percent.

    Yes, the law school system is broken and in need of serious reform. We have too many law schools, graduating too many prospective lawyers (who have no prospects), making false promises of employability, that wholly fail to train newly-minted lawyers in the art of practicing law (or even writing a coherent legal argument). So stipulated.

    But your proposed reform moves in the backward direction. Personally, I think all prospective law students should spend a few years working in the real world before going to law school. It would lead to better grounded lawyers, who are more integrated into their communities, and who can offer their clients some real world understanding and expertise, instead of just being paid to argue.

    Now if you really want to be a traditionalist, propose apprenticeships and advocating “reading the law” as a means for entering the noble profession. Hey, it’s what our society demands before credentialing an electrician or plumber, and I like to think that the legal services I provide my client are as important to society. (No sarcasm in that comment. I was serious.)

    Rethink this one, please.

  • Mat

    There’s way too much institutional momentum resisting this. Perhaps a compromise: a 5 year combined program similar to what some architecture schools do which would offer a bachelors and masters degree together. The present JD has always struck me as a joke, but you could still retain a doctoral degree (including a dissertation) as a prerequisite for becoming a law prof (just like it is for those of us in the Arts and Sciences).

  • Jim.

    Without law school to look forward to, what credible path would people with undergraduate degrees in the Humanities have, after graduation?

    They can’t all be prestigious bloggers living in stately manors in glamorous Queens.

  • Ben

    A great many law students take time off between undergrad and law school (e.g., only 1/3 of my class went straight through from college). I’ve often been critical of the lack of actual education that goes on in law school, especially in years 2 and 3, but perhaps the idea of a 22-year-old practicing attorney scares me more.

  • a nissen

    At #4. I presume you know of a few places left that still offer an architectural degree in five years. I found my own fifth year one too many, but soon became very grateful after my alma mater decided to imitate law’s “professionalism” and require a masters for an architectural degree.

    Alas, WRM’s proposal and #4′s commendable compromise, while quite appropriate, will be a hard row to hoe for the reason #4 states either for law or architecture where law’s extortion has already imitated. Read Thomas Sowell’s 2011 ” Economic Facts and Fallacies” for an astute, sobering account of backtracking that would be required.

    Word of warning: Sowell’s applied economics applied outside his personal knowledge is definitely not fallacy-free, as billed. Fortunately, “costs” contributing to high “asking prices” for a college “education” is right up his alley, hence—as billed.

  • Chase Crucil

    Your idea is good and bad. It’s good because it word reduce the educational costs imposed on students, which are too high and increasing every year.

    On the other hand, based on what i know about both undergraduate law and the world of law school, I can say without reservation that the level of intellectual intensity required to master a first year contracts course will be VERY difficult to replicate in an undergraduate context. Most eighteen year old students are not prepared for the kind of pressure that comes with the comprehensive application of the Socratic method.

    Some poli sci departments in liberals colleges – which tend not to be as committed to only teaching pure political science as large research universities – offer undergrad courses in Constitutional Law. Because these kinds of classes very so widely in quality, most law schools recommend against taking them.

    At my alma matter – DePaul University – the department had a faculty member who taught several con law courses, an example of which was his class on the Supreme Court’s search and seizure law jurisprudence in wartime. While these classes were great and intellectually challenging – that is to say, students who did not study hard actually got bad grades, which doesn’t always happen in undergrad liberal arts programs – they did not have the heavy pressure feeling that one gets in a law school course.

    I’m not saying that this point invalidates your proposal, it’s just something to think about. Also, I don’t get how you can attack law schools while still recommending an undergraduate liberal arts degree, which can also be quite expensive with no guaranteed job at graduation.

    Thanks as always for the thought provoking articles.

  • http://funnyifnottragic.blogspot.com Robert Morris

    Law school is just another hoop to jump through before you can join the Union.

  • True

    Good idea. It’s very true that law school isn’t necessary to be able to perform well as a lawyer. Besides, there is still a bar exam. If people can pass that, who cares where (or if) they went to law school? Generally, though, it’s a bigger issue of truth and reality versus credentialism. An undergraduate degree is not necessary for most of the jobs for which it remains a prerequisite. There is a big difference between an education and a degree, between a set of skills, knowledge, ability and enthusiasm as opposed to a credential.

  • Richard F. Miller

    WRM:

    As my current project involves writing biographical sketches of about 600 American leaders (especially at the state and local level) born between 1790 and 1840, I can tell you with certainty that a single digit percentage of the nation’s legal-trained elites attended law schools. There were a few schools by 1840, notably Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Litchfield in Connecticut.

    Most of those with academy legal training covered precisely the same track described in your article—undergraduate departments at places like Hamilton, Dickinson, and UVM set this still-minuscule number up for a law career.

    But the overwhelming number–I estimate 95 percent–”read law” (as the expression was) in the office of a practitioner for 1 to 3 years before taking the bar examination.

    Prospective students with promise (and connections) would read law with sitting judges, state legislators and congressmen. Others would read law with local practitioners.

    You mention Lincoln and Webster and rightly so. But what is easily overlooked are the seminal contributions to state and federal jurisprudence by those whose “formal” education essentially consisted of a 1 to 3 year internship under the tutelage of their seniors and who went on to become state supreme court justices, legislative leaders, and authors of authoritative texts that taught generations of lawyers.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “it wasn’t until around the turn of the 20th Century that America started making a three year graduate degree a bar for entry”

    Like SgtDad, my family had two LLBs who were both excellent lawyers, who were very successful and held in high esteem in their community — my father, of blessed memory, who graduated in 1947, and my grandfather, of blessed memory, who graduated in 1914.

    I doubt that a graduate program was required in most states before the 1970s.

    The graduate school system is also very expensive. The additional three years, including tuition, deferred interest on undergraduate loans, and lost earnings, costs the student more than $200,000. That is a severe burden for a young person to carry before he has gotten his first adult job.

    To me, the rationale for returning to the LLB program (undergraduate law degree) is lightening the burden on young people.

    Would all of the revived LLB grads get jobs as lawyers? No more so than the number of JDs who get jobs. But, they would be far less indebted than the unemployed JDs.

  • Corlyss

    Another interesting stat: over 50% of the enrollment in law schools is women.

    A second interesting stat: when a profession begins to assume too much of a distaff look, average income for that profession plummets. Medical school is reaching the same saturation point with women, just in time for the job to become de juris or defacto government employment here in the US. It is already in most western countries.

    I’m a lawyer. I didn’t learn anything useful in law school. It didn’t even teach me how to pass the bar exam. I had to plunk down another pot of money for that! They don’t even teach students how to write coherent arguments. Fortunately, as an older enrollee, I already knew how to write a good argument. But Brian Gardner and similar coaches have been getting rich running classes for law school grads who can’t write. It’s been a knock on them for years that, considering the average income of the one- or two-man law office – as opposed to the high powered law/consulting firm in up-market cities – law schools don’t even teach grads how to run a law firm, how to get clients, any practical skills. Same knock on arts programs everywhere. Students graduate not knowing how to earn a living.

    Changing the system will be difficult and over the dead and smoking bodies of the American Bar Association gate keepers. Their members don’t know all those politicians just so they get to pronounce on the qualifications of judicial appointees. They know pols so they can get them to write legislation that requires lawyers to have a degree from an accredited law school and to pass the bar exam in order to practice.

  • maulerman

    What do you learn in law school?

    How to read a case and extract relevant precedent for similar cases.

    The nomenclature of law, i.e, what is stare decisis, lis pendens, res ipsa loquitor, etc.

    How to think like a lawyer, i.e, evaluating and analyzing the facts and law together.

    Admission to law school requires an undergraduate degree. Eliminating an inapplicable undergraduate degree would seem to be a better solution.

  • JenniferHall

    Today’s law degree is yesterday’s liberal arts arts degree. You don’t learn any real skills in law school, and there are limited opportunities once you graduate. Everyone and their dog wants to be a lawyer. When I was in college, half the people I knew were taking the LSAT. In 1990, I was seeking work as a paralegal or legal secretary, and found out repeatedly those paralegal jobs had gone to people with law degrees. I knew then that something smelled really rotten, if lawyers were having to work as legal secretaries and paralegals. So you see, even twenty years ago this was a huge problem. Its not something new. Even knowing about limited job prospects, many people seek the status of a law degree. Its an emotional issue more than anything else. Many women, unfortunately, feel they need a “power job” to be respected in society, and they actively shun any positions in childcare or nursing. And let’s face it, men know darn well they can pick up women easier if they are a lawyer. I think if you make legal education much easier to attain, people won’t want it so badly anymore. They will find something else to do. I think making law an undergraduate major is a good solution.