As They Ponder Reforms, Law Deans Find Schools 'Remarkably Resistant to Change'

February 27, 2011

Sweeping changes in the legal profession and stinging critiques of law schools' performance have done little to change the way the nation's 200 accredited law schools educate their students, several speakers said at a national symposium here over the weekend.

While schools are taking small steps to incorporate more experiential learning and encourage students to broaden their job searches, they remain "remarkably resistant to change," said Erwin Chemerinsky, the inaugural dean of the University of California at Irvine School of Law.

Mr. Chemerinsky, who was handed a clean slate when he took over a new law school nearly three years ago, was the keynote speaker at the "Future of Legal Education" symposium, sponsored by the Law Review at the University of Iowa College of Law.

One reason schools are sticking with a familiar playbook: "It's a cost-effective method of education," Mr. Chemerinsky said. "Putting one professor in front of a large group of students is very efficient." Clinical classes and simulations, which require low student-to-faculty ratios, cost more, he said.

Because his own law school wasn't bound by decades of tradition, Mr. Chemerinsky said, he and the founding faculty members were able to do some things differently, like stressing hands-on, interdisciplinary study across all three years.

Asked by an audience member how the school could afford to do that, he answered, "It starts with having to charge ridiculous levels of tuition." Annual tuition and fees at Irvine total just over $40,000 for California residents and $50,000 for out-of-state students—comparable to rates charged at other University of California law schools. (Members of the inaugural classes at Irvine received significant tuition breaks.)

The high cost of a more personalized education isn't the only barrier facing older law schools. Curricular changes have to be approved by faculty members, most of whom graduated from the same elite law schools, have comfortable jobs, and have little reason to want change, several deans said.

Richard A. Matasar, dean of New York Law School, summed up the attitude he sees at many campuses: "We're all old dogs trying to learn some new tricks, and all of us old dogs have got tenure and we're not going any place."

No 'Giant Conspiracy'

The symposium came at a time of soul-searching for a sector that has taken a beating lately in scholarly reports, newspapers, and legal blogs. Critics accuse law schools of churning out too many ill-prepared lawyers and of misleading students about their job prospects with inflated placement statistics.

Mr. Matasar took issue with the latter charge. "There's a common myth that law schools are engaged in the business of lying to people to get them to come to law school," he said. If it were "some giant conspiracy" by law deans, "that would suggest we're all a bunch of immoral, unethical, and terrible people, and we're not."

Law students know what they're getting into when they sign promissory notes for their student loans, and they have no doubt read the many blistering critiques questioning the value of a law degree, he said.

Legal education does cost too much, Mr. Matasar said, mainly because it is "grossly inefficient." Schools could cut costs by stratifying—offering, as a friend characterized it to him, a "Motel 6" education with few bells and whistles, in which practicing lawyers teach many of the courses, as well as a "Ritz-Carlton" version taught by full-time, tenure-track professors. Neighboring schools could share library, faculty, and other resources, he said, adding, "Does every law school need an expert in the law of Timbuktu?"

But while several speakers stressed the need for law schools to differentiate and come up with creative ways to prepare students for a variety of jobs, they argued that accreditation rules set by the American Bar Association discourage innovation.

"The kind of education you give someone who's going to go out and hang a shingle is very different from the kind of education you give someone who is joining a large law firm," said David E. Van Zandt, former dean of Northwestern University School of Law and now president of the New School.

Many students entering law school today won't earn enough to make their investment pay off, he said, adding that under the current system, going to law school makes economic sense only if a graduate earns a starting salary of at least $66,000 a year.

Fostering Flexibility

Taking up for the ABA was Jay Conison, dean of Valparaiso University School of Law and chairman of the ABA's law-school accreditation committee. The committee is considering a variety of changes in its accreditation standards.

Mr. Conison told the audience that one of the goals of that review is to give law schools the flexibility to come up with more-effective, less-expensive ways to prepare students for a rapidly changing profession.

The schools continue to have lots of competition. Despite sweeping law-firm layoffs in recent years, several new law schools are in the works, and many existing schools are expanding class sizes to bring in more money for their cash-strapped universities.

But as enrollments expand, growing number of legal educators are questioning the long-held mantra that law schools' primary purpose is to teach students "to think like lawyers."

"Can you imagine if medical schools graduated doctors without ever having them treat a patient, just teaching them to think like doctors?" Mr. Chemerinsky asked.

Gail B. Agrawal, dean of law at the University of Iowa, cautioned that law schools should be careful, as they shift their emphasis toward practical skills like drafting motions and interviewing clients, that they don't shortchange broader goals, such as cultivating a commitment to social justice.

She summed up the challenges facing law schools. "We need to prepare students to be client ready on Day 1 and have the intellectual foundations of a wise judge and the courage and commitment to take on the unpopular cause or client," she said. "And we have to do it in three years or less without increasing the cost of legal education."

As if that weren't enough, Mr. Chemerinsky said, law schools are also expected to be interdisciplinary by bringing in faculty members from fields like economics and psychology. While that enriches the curriculum, it increases the number of faculty members who are far removed from the day-to-day realities of practice, he said.

"If our primary mission is training lawyers, how successful can we be if a large proportion of our faculty have never practiced law?"