An issue that has recently flooded the pages of the New York Times is the rapidly increasing cost of attending law school, despite the economic climate this country is currently experiencing. Law school tuition is rising four times faster than the cost to attend an undergraduate institution, yet the amount of students attending has also increased despite the heavy debt they will incur and the tight job market they will enter after graduating. Many people in various legal positions have contributed their opinions to the debate of whether it is necessary for law schools to take action to lower costs, and if so, how that should be accomplished.
The first law school in the United States was established in 1784 and the school viewed its students as apprentices, not as scholars. However, in 1878 the American Bar Association (“ABA”) was formed and began enacting limitations on law schools. For instance, in the 1890s the ABA pushed states to limit the number of people admitted to the Bar. In 1906, the Association of American Law Schools also contributed to the transformation of law schools by adopting a requirement that law school consist of three years of study.
Since the formation of law schools, the organization of these institutions has experienced changes. It is less common to see militant professors, as portrayed in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase, and more common to witness professors simply asking for volunteers in class and not berating students if they did not read an assignment. Even the length of time that a person has to go to law school has changed. Recently, schools such as Northwestern University School of Law have begun to offer an accelerated program in which a student can complete their Juris Doctor (“J.D.”) in two years instead of three.
Despite all these changes, though, many people in the legal field are frustrated with how much it costs to attend law school as well as the make-up of law schools. One common complaint, as detailed in The New York Times article, “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering,” is that law students are leaving school with no practical training, leaving firms the task of having to prepare new associates to become lawyers on the firm’s dime, or that of clients. Many suggestions have been offered as to how to remedy this issue in a way that would train law students to become lawyers and alleviate some of the financial costs law schools and students face. One suggestion has been to decrease the amount of credits students must take. Another proposal has been to replace the third year of law school with an apprenticeship, which was the focus of the first law schools, instead of forcing students to engage in more coursework.
A proposition that has generated a lot of discussion is the idea of replacing full-time faculty with adjunct faculty. Currently, the ABA requires that its accredited schools have a ratio of twenty students or less to one full-time faculty member. A ratio of thirty students to one full-time faculty member is not in compliance with the ABA standards, but many of these full-time professors do not have practical legal experience because law schools look to hire scholars and not people who have spent years practicing law. On the other hand, an adjunct professor is an experienced practitioner by definition.
Besides lacking practical experience, it is more expensive to employ full-time faculty as opposed to adjunct faculty. About half of a law school’s budget is spent on faculty salary and benefits, and about eighty percent of that budget goes toward full-time faculty. Alternatively, adjunct faculty make a few thousand dollars a year to teach a course.
With the current economic climate, it is vital that changes are made among different institutions, including law schools that will keep costs down. While no method is a guaranteed solution, staffing more adjunct faculty is something that should be considered and this type of change would need to be initiated by the ABA. Even though modifications to the organization of law schools may make law school administrations and professors uneasy, if adjustments are not made, the make-up of the legal profession may experience unwanted changes. The New York Times article states that, “the nature of legal work itself is evolving, and the days when corporations buy billable hours, instead of results, are numbered.” If law students continue on the path of failing to obtain practical experience, their chances of succeeding in this dismal market will remain poor.