Matt Bodie reacts to a couple of recent LGM posts pointing out that most law schools are currently losing money because they’re spending more than they’re bringing in, which means they’re going to have to spend less:
Not to rehash these issues for the ump-teenth time, but I wish reformers like Campos would at least acknowledge some of the benefits of the current (but likely passing) model for legal education, such as smaller classes, more clinical opportunities, and more extra-educational services. Sure, that’s expensive, but is trying to provide a better product rent-seeking? Not to say that there aren’t examples of rent-seeking, such as higher salaries and cushy benefits. But smaller student-teacher ratios mean you are hiring more teachers, not more expensive ones, and tenure existed in the 1980s, too.
Campos doesn’t come out and say this, but apparently he wants to return to the days when law schools had largely big-lecture Socratic classes, a couple of clinics, and students teaching legal research and writing. If so, I wish he’d say it. I think there’s a good argument for the old method: a “VW Bug” version of legal education may make more sense for more people than a Cadillac one. (The nice cars do have Corinthian leather!) But once he came out with something concrete, people would have grounds for criticizing his approach.
This assumes that the form and substance of legal education in America today is significantly different than it was in, say, 1990, when the average student to faculty ratio was 25 to 1, as compared to the current 14 to 1 figure. But is it? I’m not aware of any studies of this question, and Bodie doesn’t refer to any. I do know that a glance at the course schedules of the two law schools I know best — the one at which I teach and the one from which I graduated — reveals that, in these two cases, there is very little apparent difference in how law school education is structured from its form 25 years ago.
For example, at the University of Michigan, all the traditional first-year classes continue to be taught, and continue to be taught in very large sections, as they were when I was a student there in the mid/late 1980s. First-year students still take Contracts, Property, Torts, Criminal Law, Civil Procedure, and Constitutional Law — exactly the same courses I took as a first-year in 1986. Indeed three of these courses are being taught by the very same professors I had nearly 30 years ago. (The one significant alternation to the first-year curriculum is the addition of a Legislation and Regulation class, as law schools are now beginning to acknowledge that knowing something about the contemporary administrative state may be of more practical relevance than memorizing The Rule In Shelley’s Case.)
For the class of 2014, all of these classes were taught in sections of 60 to 120 students, with the most common class size being 90. In other words, at my alma mater, the entire first year curriculum looks almost identical in all respects to what it was in the 1980s.
The situation at the school at which I teach is the same. Although our first year class is one half the size of Michigan’s, and our student-faculty ratio is quite a bit lower (9.7 to 1 as compared to 12.8 to 1), we don’t have more than three sections of any first year class (the required classes are identical to Michigan’s, which again are nearly identical to what they were at the two schools 100 years ago; law schools are not exactly hives of pedagogical innovation and experimentation), which means that first-year classes will have either 60 or 90 students in them (one class has only two sections, while the rest have three).
As for upper level courses, the situation seems similar. The classic courses which students are expected to take — Evidence, Tax, Corporations, Bankruptcy, Family Law, etc. — are being offered in one or two sections per year, which means these classes will be very large as well (at Michigan, which is twice as large as CU, a lot of these classes will have 150 students in them, as they did back when I took them).
Not everything in legal education is exactly the same as it was 25 years ago. The radical drop in student-faculty ratio probably means that there are more upper-level niche courses, reflecting faculty interests, featuring small enrollments (although since reductions in teaching loads have eaten up the functional effect of much of the decline in student-faculty ratio, even this isn’t necessarily true). Career services offices and the like are far more elaborate than they were (whether this actually helps get graduates jobs is another question altogether). And at both CU and Michigan there are many more clinical offerings than a generation ago. Yet the data I’ve seen on this subject indicate that the large majority of law students are still graduating without taking a single clinic. Clinics are extremely expensive, and they also tend to involve a lot more work for most students than intermittently coming to class for 14 weeks before “learning” the material from a canned outline for the purposes of single issue-spotting in-class exam. If you think this is a hyperbolic description of the pedagogical experiences of upper level law students, I recommend browsing through a few of the posts in this thread. Typical exchange (there are dozens in a similar vein):
Legitimate 3L question:
Really easy class, two hours long, 3 credits, all it is is a little discussion panel on law firm management and client interaction, run by the career services office with tons of guest lecturers, everyone gets an A, and the final grade is based on just doing a 15 minute presentation.
What’s the catch?
It’s on Friday, 12:30-2:30.
WHAT SAY YOU, TLS?
No. Fridays are sacred. The only way you take this is if you don’t have class on Mondays so you still get a long weekend.
Motherfuck Friday classes. But I’d take one if I knew it was a guaranteed A. Just plan the schedule around that. Frankly, a Friday class is fine if you can schedule your other classes on only Wednesdays and Thursdays (plus another Friday class).
4-day weekends every week is T[he]C[redited]R[esponse] for 3LOL, IMHO. I’ll have Th, F, Sa, Su off plus no class until Monday at 6. So 4.5 day weekend.
At this point I can’t resist quoting from the following oration, given this fall to the incoming class at the University of Chicago by a new member of the law faculty:
What differentiates good lawyers – graduates from this law school – is the ability to advise clients about what those laws and documents actually mean in the real world, how they affect human interaction, and most importantly, how those effects can be changed.
To prepare you for this – and we do prepare you for this – we will teach you to explore how rules, policy, and human behavior interact. It is precisely for this reason that law school is (more than any other area of study) so interdisciplinary. You cannot understand the rights that a lender will exercise against a bankrupt corporation without understanding finance, economics, psychology, political theory, and philosophy, to name a few.
A few? Mastering a large swath of the humanities and social sciences while learning some law and taking a lot of four-day weekends sounds like something of a challenge.
I feel my snark getting the best of me, but here we have a prime example of the real anti-intellectualism that plagues law schools, as opposed to the kind supposedly emitted by the awful scam blogs and the unsympathetic media the young Prof. Casey decries in his remarks. Does Casey actually believe that a genuine “understanding [of] finance, economics, psychology, political theory, and philosophy, to name a few,” is what his law school provides to its, as Milton Friedman would put it, “customers,” and that achieving this astonishing (and, needless to say, wholly imaginary) feat of erudition is necessary before one can become a good bankruptcy lawyer? And how exactly is this pedagogical miracle being performed, in the context of something that, from the published course schedule, looks very much like the same program that his school, and indeed almost all law schools, have been offering since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary?
In short, it appears that what law schools have done is continue to sell the same VW Bugs they were selling 25 years ago. They’ve just started charging Cadillac prices, while making increasingly extravagant claims that they’re selling magical vehicles that can take you to the Moon and back in time, not just down the Indiana turnpike. Also, the cars often don’t have engines in them any more.
Precisely what to do about this is in some ways a complex question, as the answers will vary a lot depending on the institution. But in other ways it’s not complex at all. I’ll address that issue in detail in another post.