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Monday, August 18, 2014

Dean Frank Wu on Rethinking Law School

Dean Frank Wu (Hastings) has a piece in the San Francisco Daily Journal called "It's Time to Rethink Law School" (HT:  Paul Caron).  The conclusion and central claim is this:

There has not been, in the recollection of anyone now living, a similar set of challenges for law schools. As with all such situations, however, leaders must spot the issues. We are in danger. We should not deny that.

I welcome the opportunity. We must cooperate -- bench, bar, teachers, students -- to take apart the system and put it back together again better.

Among other things, Dean Wu suggests that legal education should be re-worked to look and function more like medical education (a point that others, including my former colleague, Vincent Rougeau, now dean at Boston College, have also made).

I think that Dean Wu is right to underscore and emphasize what he calls the "maldistribution of lawyers" and also the "cost structure of legal education" and the crisis of "student loan debt."  I do regret, though, what seemed to me to be his endorsement of a criticism that, in my view, is (for the most part) a straw man.  After noting that the "century-old case method is transitioning towards skills training," he says "[t]he analysis of appellate decisions remains integral to the first year courses, but it would amount to an incomplete education at best" and contends critically that "some law school graduates" -- unlike medical-school graduates -- have engaged in "book learning alone."

The "transition[]" Dean Wu describes is clearly underway, but it seems to me that it has been for decades (and it has involved adding lots of enriching things -- not only skills training and clinical work -- to the "century old case method").  It's been a long time, I think, since anyone thought "the analysis of appellate decisions" alone could make for a "[]complete" legal education or since more than a handful of law-school graduates were trained through "book learning alone."  The "law schools teach nothing of practical relevance or worth" charge is out there, I realize, but I continue to think it is significantly overstated.  (And, to be clear, to say this is not to say anything about the extent to which "skills training" should be emphasized or incorporated more than it is at present.)

Posted by Rick Garnett on August 18, 2014 at 04:19 PM in Life of Law Schools, Rick Garnett, Teaching Law | Permalink


I find it extremely odd that law school educators are looking to medical school education as a template for reform. It certainly is worthwhile to provide students with clinical experience in addition to classroom experience, but the med school model in no way will resolve the problem of student debt. Clinical education is costly - we can't have it both ways.

Lest we idealize the med school model, we should take note of the shockingly high debt loads medical students currently incur - law school debt pales in comparison. And this is true even though the federal government directly subsidizes (via the Medicare program) the cost of medical training.


Posted by: Anon | Aug 18, 2014 6:12:41 PM

The big problem is, as Dean Wu correctly identifies, the cost structure of law school. I have a slight issue with this, though:

"Almost all academics balk at crude characterizations of 'return on investment.' They value learning intrinsically, valuable in its own right; not instrumentally, a means to an end."

The problem with the cost structure is the faculty and administration only tend to think this way when it comes to their students. They certainly believe they are entitled to a 'return on investment' on their own education. The economics are pretty simple; over the past two decades too many law schools have hired too many faculty for too much money. The only ways you can fix the cost structure is to fire faculty, reduce pay, or a combination of both. This is a simple fact that the vast majority of commentators on the law school side inevitably dance around because...I'm not sure. Calls to pay current law faculty and administrators less certainly invokes a lot of anger but at the end of the day university-affiliated law schools won't receive the financial support from the university required to maintain sky-high compensation levels, particularly when faculty from other departments frequently consider law faculty to work half as hard for twice the money, while only having half the education. Independent law schools will collapse even faster.​

Posted by: kasio | Aug 19, 2014 10:51:15 AM

Maybe the solution isn't as complicated as it seems. One way to keep tuition stable is for law professors to teach more classes per year and to invest time in adding experiential learning ("skills") components to those classes. Perhaps the increased teaching load would results in professors only producing scholarships during summers. This solution would reduce the overall quantity of scholarship produced, perhaps, but it is by no means clear that it would reduce the overall quality.

Posted by: LB Lidsky | Aug 19, 2014 12:20:56 PM

One of the basic difficulties with translating the medical model to law school is that med schools make money off of their clinics. Typically, we law schools don't generate fees from our clinics -- and there are strong obstacles in the bar and in clinical ideology to our doing so. Of course, the absence of widespread insurance for legal services makes the possibility of generating revenue from fee-generating clinics more difficult for law schools than med schools.

Chicago-Kent has a fee-generating model for clinical education (http://www.kentlaw.iit.edu/seeking-legal-help/fees/fee-generating-model) but it is extremely controversial among clinicians.

So here is a question for Dean Wu (and others): should we law schools adopt the Chicago-Kent model of fee-generating clinics and basically form school-run law firms where our students (and faculty) can make money and gain litigation or even transaction experience simultaneously?

Posted by: Rick Hills | Aug 19, 2014 3:52:01 PM


I completely agree that your solution going forward makes sense, but the problem is you still end up having to fire people now. Make profs teach 4 classes a semester instead of 2 and you end up with twice as many professors as you need. Don't do that and you have to either drastically cut salaries or fire a lot of people and offer less electives with larger class sizes.

I think there's this sense that a lot of professors think they've "made it"; they've gotten tenure, they've published things that other law professors know about, they're known in their field, they go speak at conferences, etc., and that this necessarily means job (and salary) security. The idea that a mid-career legal academic might see their standard of living go down significantly is very upsetting to a lot of them, which is why most ideas for "reform" in the faculty deal with ideas that don't really address the cost structure, such as more clinical training, more interdisciplinary training, or trying to convince students (and employers) that the JD is "versatile."

There's definitely a sense of cognitive dissonance, especially in light of the fact that even a "prominent" law professor has a really serious problem if his or her law school closes or drastically cuts faculty due to financial exigency. They don't have the practice experience (usually) to move to private practice, and most lack the academic qualifications (particularly a legitimate research doctorate) to move to a political science or public policy department. Considering how few law school hirings are being done these days there's no way the rest of the schools can absorb the faculty from even a single closed law school.

I suspect that if you're a law professor with between 5 and 25 years of experience at a tier 2 school that is losing money, you better work on a backup plan right now. A decent idea would be to try and work on teaching qualifications for high school or junior high school. If you have a strong specialty in something concrete and substantive, like tax law, finance law, etc., you MIGHT be able to snag an of-counsel job at a decent biglaw firm, but if you are a generalist, or specialize in something less useful involving social justice, feminist jurisprudence, international or environmental law, civil procedure, etc., you are very at-risk.

Posted by: ticonderoga | Aug 19, 2014 5:35:05 PM

LB: I very much believe that adding a practice focus to core and other non-clinical classes is one necessary aspect of reform. But that would require many to restructure classes that they've been teaching for years, so the incentives to change are understandably muted.

Posted by: DSA | Aug 19, 2014 7:05:38 PM

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