Interdisciplinary Scholarship and the Cost of Legal Education

book-stack1.jpgThe other day, I responded to a post by Brian Tamanaha regarding interdisciplinary legal study at non-elite law schools. Brian suggested that non-elite schools reconsider whether they ought to pursue interdisciplinary legal scholarship, and I argued that they should.

In a follow-up post, Brian has clarified his argument:

My point was not to be anti-intellectual but to get us to think about a growing crisis in non-elite law schools.

Signs of the crisis are evident in many recent reports. The basic elements are this: tuition at private law schools ranges around $35,000-$40,000 per year, doubling in the past decade and still rising; pay for law jobs outside corporate law has stagnated, many in the $40,000-$50,000 range; the overwhelming majority of graduates from non-elite law schools will not get corporate law jobs, and will be saddled with a huge debt.

Brian suggests that the high cost of law school “is also a problem for society because the lower middle class and poor cannot obtain lawyers–it just doesn’t pay enough.” He concludes:

It’s time we start thinking more seriously about whether non-elite law schools would be better served, and would better serve their students, if they develop a different model for training people who want to be lawyers. Otherwise the crisis might be one that non-elite law schools bring upon themselves, as more and more prospective law students decide that the cost of law school is not worth the return.

Brian points to an article about a Boston University Law School graduate who decided after graduating from law school to take a non-legal job and remains saddled with massive debts.

I now understand Brian’s point to be more about the high cost of law school than about interdisciplinary studies. In fact, I see his argument as almost entirely independent of the question of interdisciplinary studies.

I wonder how much costs could be cut at non-elite schools by moving away from interdisciplinary studies. Why would this be a significant way to cut costs? I’m no expert on the economics of running a law school, but I don’t think that interdisciplinary studies is the primary problem. Brian’s argument could be applied to scholarship more generally, not just interdisciplinary scholarship. Costs at law schools might be cut more if some non-elite schools were to hire fewer professors and make them teach more classes and do less (or no) scholarship. These schools could require professors to teach many more classes than the norm — maybe 3, 4, or even 5 classes per semester. As with the catch phrase in this season’s The Wire, these schools could “do more with less.”

If I understand Brian’s argument, it is that there should be cheap law schools for students who have no desire to go to big law firms or otherwise pursue highly-lucrative legal jobs. So there should be a group of law schools that are designed to be “economy class” — offer an inexpensive legal education for students who desire it. I have no objection to schools that decide to recast themselves in this model or to schools that are created based on this model. This would be the legal equivalent of the ‘teaching university.”

But I see this as a very different claim than the argument that non-elite law schools should move away from interdisciplinary studies. That some schools should have professors teach more and write less is a different issue than what the professors would teach — they could teach interdisciplinary studies, for example, or they could teach only doctrines and practice skills, or something of both.

I personally believe that having professors who produce scholarship is good for a law school. But this need not be a requirement for all law schools. If students want to a cheaper education without scholarship-producing professors, then I don’t see why there shouldn’t be some options for them.

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4 Responses

  1. Eric Goldman says:

    Two main culprits in the explanation for increasing costs of a JD: (1) accreditation requirements, which keep proliferating, and (2) US News and World Reports, which motivates schools to spend on things measured by the survey regardless of the pedagogical payoff from those efforts. So it’s unlikely that ABA-accredited schools that care about their US News rankings are going to get cheaper any time soon. In contrast, California has state-accredited schools that provide a much lower-cost option for legal education; but those schools are viewed as non-viable options by many law school candidates. Eric.

  2. “Brian suggests that the high cost of law school “is also a problem for society because the lower middle class and poor cannot obtain lawyers–it just doesn’t pay enough.” He concludes”

    …wouldn’t this also be an argument for National Law Insurance – whereby we federalize the providing of legal services so that the poor and middle class could avail themselves of the services of “elite” school graduates. I’ve no doubt that the government can bring the same efficiencies to the providing of legal services that many on this board believe they can bring to our health care “crisis”.

  3. George says:

    One law student’s point of view:

    1. Learning the fallacy “post hoc ergo propter hoc” cost me $341.00 dollars per credit hour in undergrad at UMass Boston, but at Suffolk Law it cost me $1,195.00 per credit hour? Where is the extra $850 dollars going? Both schools are in Boston. Suffolk’s been around a lot longer. I don’t know how to run a school either; I do know the explanation of the fallacy was equivalent in depth at both schools. Even if the law professor served me ham and cheese on rye with a beer on the side, one would be looking at maybe an additional $35.00, with a tip.

    2. Want lower law school costs? Don’t charge so much. Just because the market allows it does not require you to charge that amount.

    3. One realistic approach would be to cut a year or two off the degree. My tuition would go down $35,948 for 1 year and $71,896 for two. You could have a JD be a one or two year master’s degree or even a 5yr combined undergrad and masters degree. After graduation the budding attorney goes into a one or two year internship similar to medical school model where one is apprenticing under an attorney. After that you take the bar, and if you pass, then, and only then, are you allowed to fly solo. Those who wish to pursue more rigorous academic work can get a PhD in Law or an LLM specialization after they pass the bar.


    Costs go down, you get cheap legal labor, the new student gets two years in system, making contacts, learning actual lawyer skills in the state system he or she would be practicing in. As a very wise man just said yesterday:

    “There’s a certain wisdom that comes from experience that seasoned practitioners have and that I don’t think can readily be taught in school. The best way to learn how to practice law is to do it.”

    Is Interdisciplinary Legal Study a Luxury?, Daniel J. Solove at January 17, 2008 04:37 PM.

    Plus, you could still keep all the unnecessary hazing, sorting, 1L, “we’re-gonna-make-lawya-outa-u” stuff that you guys love so much. It’s win-win.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    George: notwithstanding my reply to you in the previous thread on this topic, reading your current post I see your point. Your complaints are valid, your suggestions are good. But since they’re too late for your own legal education, just pass the bar and find a way to use what you learned. Much of this blog is focused on the career concerns of the professoriate; you have a chance to surpass them.