Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

2007 Symposium on the Future of Legal Education

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

2007 Symposium on the Future of Legal Education

Article excerpt

Like the proverbial elephant, law school appears different when perceived from different perspectives. During my twenty years as a law professor, I saw law school as a professional training program, a legal research institute, and a wonderful group of academic colleagues. The articles in this Symposium on the Future of Legal Education, based on a conference held at Vanderbilt in spring of 2006, generally view law school from a similar perspective. Now that I'm a Provost, my perspective is different. This raises some new issues, but it also underscores the basic theme of the Symposium.

Law schools, like business schools, public policy schools and undergraduate programs, are largely tuition-supported institutions, although supplemented in essential ways by private donations. This is possible because their students are capable of paying the steadily increasing tuition (often with the help of federal loans, of course), and neither the teaching nor the faculty research relies on the extensive use of technology or large empirical data sets. Medical and engineering schools also have tuition-paying students, but the technological demands of both the teaching and research means that their tuition and donation revenue must be heavily supplemented by grants. In graduate programs, the students generally don't (and often simply can't) pay the tuition, and some fields are subject to technological and empirical demands as well; consequently, these programs must be subsidized by other sources, including grants and related support.

To many Provosts, the fact that law schools are largely tuition-supported means that they do not need to receive funding from central university sources. In fact, they can be regarded as a source of funds for other university programs-to continue the theme of large grazing animals, they are cash cows. More importantly, in my view, the fact that law schools are tuition- driven means that their economic viability depends on factors that are outside their control-in particular, on the gatekeeper degree that they award and on the economic health of the field for which they are training their students.

In granting a gatekeeper degree, law schools are similar to medical schools and engineering schools, but unlike business or public policy schools. Not only is a degree required to practice law, or, more precisely, to take the qualifying exam for legal practice, but that degree must be provided by a university. A few states, most notably California, allow proprietary institutions to offer the required degree, but the vast majority forbid this. As a result, law schools are not in competition with other types of training institutions, nor with employers who are willing to shoulder the training costs themselves. This fortunate situation is determined by political decisions that lie outside the direct control of universities.

But the law schools' monopoly over the training of lawyers will not count for very much unless their students continue to command the handsome salaries that enable them to pay off their loans, or, more generally, that justify the cost of the degree. This depends on the continued economic health of the legal profession. In fact, the profession must not be merely healthy, but robust; it must continue to demand large numbers of entry level practitioners, and must continue offering them salaries far above the national median. Moreover, the viability of research-oriented law schools, including all the schools where this Symposium's authors teach, requires that employers must be willing to pay a substantial premium to the high-achieving students that these schools attract and produce.

Another feature of law schools, when viewed from a Provost's perspective, is that its educational model involves three years of classroom instruction. Business and public policy schools grant their degrees after two years, and sometimes less; medical students spend four year in school, but by the third year the educational program is largely clinical in nature. …

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