The Future of the Law School

I grew up in the 1980s when it seemed everyone wanted to be a lawyer like the ones on LA Law. The 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (up until 2007) were the era of Big Law when the promise of a $100,000 to $160,000 salary was, it seemed, extended to anyone graduating from a top 20 school and to many people graduating from a top 50 law school with great grades and clerkships.

Even in previously bad economies – 1990 to 1992, 1998-2000 – the law profession seemed to survive, if not thrive. Hundreds of thousands of smart (and even not-so-smart) people were encouraged to become lawyers by a combination of outrageous salaries – in 2007, Cravath, one of the top corporate law firms in the country, offered bonuses of nearly $100,000 for top-performing associates – federally subsidized student loans, the supposed security of a protected profession (with its bar exams), and putative prestige (see any John Grisham novel).

Law School

Of course, the truth of all that was always a little suspect. While a top 20 law grad back in the day could expect to earn a six-figure salary, many graduates didn’t have the same luck unless they chose to go into public interest law. And while it’s immaculate to think of yourself as a high-minded constitutional litigator or a trial lawyer from a Grisham novel, the practical, day-to-day experience of being a lawyer was always (and still is) grinding.

Moments of glory are few and far between. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy practicing criminal law and helping clients. And as my father might say, it’s better than digging a ditch. But the day-to-day rule of law is not out of a movie script. It involves helping people with DWI, drug charges, embezzlement, or theft. Only rarely are most lawyers involved in high-profile murder trials involving movie stars!


The demand for law school and the government subsidization of schools led to the growth of the school industry, aided by publications like U.S. News with its ludicrous rankings. Schools became financial profit centers of universities (like successful sports programs) and were often required to kick back money to the central university administration to help underwrite the rest of the less profitable parts of the university.

The costs were passed onto recent graduates and, ultimately, the legal consumer through high legal fees, especially in corporate law. Who benefited? One of the beneficiaries was the law school faculty. The person went to a top law school, practiced for a year or two, and then entered the legal academy job market at 28 or 29 to get a faculty job. The typical faculty member at a decent law school has next to no practical experience. A few law professors keep up their practical skills by performing pro bono legal work or consulting.

Most law professors know little about what it means to be a lawyer and are proud of this. That’s because the rest of the university has always looked at law schools (and business schools) as essentially trade schools. Since law professors don’t want to think they’re engaged in a massive Vocational Technical school, they try to distance themselves from law practice.

Second, the actual curriculum associated with law school had changed little from the 1930s, when it focused on 19th-century common law concepts or ancient tort or property law ideas. These principles have little to do with how property, tort, or criminal law is practiced in modern America. Most of these laws are statutory, not common law, anyway.

As if to excuse their woefully inadequate ability to train lawyers, law professors, and law school deans love to tell incoming students that they don’t teach you how to be a lawyer; they introduce you to think like a lawyer through the Socratic Method.

Of course, “thinking like a lawyer” is a silly concept. All it means is thinking carefully about an issue. Yes, it requires a little bit of discipline. But it is not difficult and does not require three years of school.

The Socratic Method – made famous by John Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase – is also bunk. Most professors don’t do it well. And all it amounts to is asking pointed questions and hypotheticals about something that was just read and will soon be forgotten.

The problem with the Law School – which has almost always been ineffective at training lawyers – is that it has a built-in constituency – the law professor – who will fight to keep their privileged position.

Law school has been experiencing a boom in the past four years, as routinely happens when the economy dives. That’s because rather than go out into an uncertain job market, many young recent college grads (and even mid-career professionals) decide to go to school to improve their employability. (They’re often increasing their debt load with no reasonable hope of paying those loans back. Hence, there is the clamor to make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy!)

But as the legal market continues to suffer, even in comparison to other parts of the economy, potential students are going to take different paths and turn to different kinds of careers, even if those careers are less financially rewarding, because the sheer amount of money it takes to go to school for three years is too much to consider paying.

In recent conversations with fellow lawyers, I’ve heard that even top law schools have trouble placing their students. That puts the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a good law school but not a great one, in a challenging position.

Suppose the University of Virginia (a top 10 law school) has trouble placing one-third of its student class in leading law firm positions. What does that mean for UNC-CH, which is not as prestigious and also has the unfortunate situation of being in a state with only two moderate-sized legal markets (Charlotte and Raleigh) and competing with other good law schools, including Duke (although Duke tends to send students out of state) and Wake Forest, as well as Campbell (which is an underrated school that trains its graduates better than UNC) and North Carolina Central (which is the best value for legal education in the state and trains some excellent lawyers)?

There are too many UNC-Chapel Hill grads in the North Carolina government ever to let the law school disappear entirely, but its privileged position will start to erode. As will the privileged position of many law schools.

So what will happen to the Law School? First, the smarter school deans will make the pretense that law school is not a trade school. They will embrace the idea that the entire curriculum should be revamped to focus on the practical skills necessary to practice law.

Next, law schools will need to adjust downward tuition to reflect the true earning potential associated with the degree, increased competition from alternative ways of learning how to practice law, and decreased demand as people realize that being a lawyer isn’t as financially rewarding as it once was.

Finally, efforts will be launched to change how the legal profession is regulated. Most state bars require three years of legal education, which will be assaulted as more people realize that this requirement is absurd.


Alcohol scholar. Bacon fan. Internetaholic. Beer geek. Thinker. Coffee advocate. Reader. Have a strong interest in consulting about teddy bears in Nigeria. Spent 2001-2004 promoting glue in Pensacola, FL. My current pet project is testing the market for salsa in Las Vegas, NV. In 2008 I was getting to know birdhouses worldwide. Spent 2002-2008 buying and selling easy-bake-ovens in Bethesda, MD. Spent 2002-2009 marketing country music in the financial sector.