By Rhode, Deborah L. | Stanford Law & Policy Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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Rhode, Deborah L., Stanford Law & Policy Review

"Progress," said Ogden Nash, "may have been all right once, but it went on too long." (1)

That seems to be the conventional wisdom about American legal education. Over the last century, "progress" has brought a longer period of study and more expensive academic programs. The result, according to critics, is that law school now costs too much, takes too long, and delivers too little practical training. (2) Contributors to this symposium bring new perspectives to longstanding questions about how well we are preparing students for the challenges of today's legal market.

Bryant Garth puts the current debate in historical perspective. (3) As he notes, claims about the crisis facing the profession emerged during the Depression of the 1930s and bear some resemblance to contemporary critiques. Then, as now, commentators worried about contraction of the market for services, overcrowding at the bottom of the bar, and loss of business to other competitors. What is distinctive about the current debate is the concern about high law school tuition, which saddles graduates with high debt levels at a time when the market offers limited job prospects. Brian Tamanaha summarizes sobering statistics. The average debt now tops $100,000. (4) Only about 55 percent of 2011 graduates secured permanent full time legal jobs. (5) The median starting salary for those who did was only $60,000, which is inadequate to cover average debt levels. (6) Over the last three decades, the price of a legal education has increased approximately three times faster than the average household income. (7) Critics of legal education fault inflated faculty salaries, rigid accreditation requirements, and U.S. News & World Report rankings, which reward increased student expenditures. (8)

Garth, by contrast, sees increased tuition as a rational response to increased competition, and to students' desires for more expensive programs and services. Moreover, Garth worries about the responses many critics favor, including two-year programs and fewer third-tier law schools. In his view, the result would be to decrease access for low- income students and students of color, and to create a "legal caste system" in which less privileged students gain affordable degrees from "second class law schools designed for second class careers." (9)

Tamanaha's view, which I share, is that more affordable choices in legal education make sense. (10) A one-size-fits-all structure ill suits a profession that is increasingly specialized. The diversity in America's legal demands argues for greater diversity in educational structures. As an advocate of one-year, two-year, and three-year programs geared to different fields and tasks, I am by no means convinced that the result would be more of a caste system than already exists. (11) And the advantage would be more affordable degrees and more access to practitioners trained to serve those now priced out of the legal market. For decades, bar studies have consistently estimated that over four fifths of the individual legal needs of the poor and a majority of the needs of middle-income individuals Americans remain unmet. (12) The recent economic downturn has brought new urgency to these longstanding needs. High rates of unemployment, bankruptcies, and reductions in social services have created more demands for legal representation at the same time that many of its providers have faced cutbacks in their own budgets. (13) Our system of legal education must do more to assist those who need help most. (14)

Deanell Tacha, former Chief Judge of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and current Dean of Pepperdine Law School, addresses that challenge in "No Law Student Left Behind." (15) As she points out, an "ever growing number of lawyers seeking meaningful legal employment" co-exists with "ever growing numbers of Americans who either cannot or think they cannot afford basic legal services." (16) There is, she notes, "something wrong with this model.

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