The Crisis in Legal Education: Dabbling in Disaster Planning

The legal education crisis has already struck for many recent law school graduates, signaling potential disaster for law schools already struggling with their own economic challenges. Law schools have high fixed costs caused by competition between schools, the unchecked expansion of federal loan programs, a widely exploited information asymmetry about graduate employment outcomes, and a lack of financial discipline masquerading as innovation. As a result, tuition is up, jobs are down, and skepticism of the value of a J.D. has never been higher. If these trends do not reverse course, droves of students will continue to graduate with debt that greatly reduces their ability to fulfill the law school graduate’s traditional and important role in American society. The point at which the law school crisis becomes a disaster for legal education is debatable, but the importance of preparing for and forestalling this disaster is not. This Article serves two forward-looking purposes that stem from the premise that American legal education requires structural change to reduce the cost of obtaining a legal education. First, we set a framework for thinking about reforms to the method of delivering legal education. Second, we examine three blueprints for structural reform: one that has already been implemented and is ineffective, and two that set the discussion on the right track. These blueprints reject mere tinkering in favor of refocusing the attention of legal education stakeholders on the drastic structural changes needed to provide quality, affordable legal education. While we provide only a starting point for considering how the two new models could work in principle, they serve as an intellectual blueprint that can pave the way for new and better ideas about legal education. It is clear that cost reform is necessary, and it is likely that substantial reform is coming. The shape of this reform depends on who gets involved, who we hope include actors beyond those who have set legal education on a path toward disaster.