Law schools have been the target of considerable criticism lately. In the past year, the New York Times alone has published four major articles and an editorial with titles such as "Is Law School a Losing Game?" and "What They Don't Teach Law Students: Lawyering."
Much of the criticism is overstated or misplaced, but some of it is not. Let's consider some of the principal claims.
Law schools don’t teach practical skills. True, law schools don’t graduate third-year associates; the skills of law school graduates develop with experience, as is true of graduates in all fields. But law schools now devote more time and resources to practical-skills training than ever before. The University of Minnesota Law School is at the forefront of a national trend toward greater experiential learning. We have introduced a mandatory skills-based course in the first year (Practice and Professionalism) to complement our award-winning legal writing program. We now offer 24 live-client clinics, giving us one of the best and largest clinical programs in the country, and over half of our students take at least one clinic, double the national average. We also have added multidisciplinary simulation-based capstone courses, new externships, field placements, contract drafting courses, a leadership foundations program, and much more.
But we are not a trade school and do not aspire to become one. We teach students to think like lawyers; that is, to think analytically, identify the core elements of a complex problem, and develop innovative solutions. These skills are essential in any of the countless niche areas of legal practice that graduates might eventually pursue; in fact, they are important skills for any field requiring rigorous analysis. Even if we don’t teach many of the mechanics of any particular niche (should we really be teaching students how to file a certificate of merger in Delaware or a judgment lien in Nebraska?), we provide the foundation students need for careers that may evolve in directions that neither we nor they can now predict.
Law schools are too expensive. Undeniably, tuition has risen further and faster at law schools than in most other disciplines. Law students who borrow to finance a U.S. education graduate with an average debt of $94,000, and many have difficulty finding employment. Starting salaries have stabilized or even declined, yet law school tuition continues to climb. As a result, some critics claim that law school is no longer a good investment for many, perhaps most, prospective lawyers.
Such arguments ignore the intrinsic rewards that many derive from the study and practice of law. But even if economic gain were the sole consideration, we would have to look closely at net cost and likely earnings over a graduate’s career compared with other possible career choices to determine benefits relative to investment. At the University of Minnesota Law School, tuition has risen sharply over the past four years, even as state support has plummeted. Nonetheless, our tuition remains near the bottom of our peer group. Moreover, scholarship funding is roughly five times what it was just four years ago, and close to 80% of entering students receive a substantial scholarship. Prospective students with no scholarship support and no interest in law beyond its earning potential should carefully consider all options before deciding to attend, but for most students, law school remains a gateway to a wide variety of rewarding careers.
Law schools mislead students with erroneous placement numbers. Already, 18 law schools have been sued by graduates claiming they were induced to attend by misleading placement statistics, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers maintain that "nearly all" law schools will be sued eventually.
Like other law schools, the University of Minnesota Law School includes in its placement statistics (as indicated on our web site) all types of employment, including non-legal, temporary, part-time, and Law School funded employment. In so reporting, we and other law schools are following the standards established by NALP (Association for Legal Career Professionals) and our accrediting body, the American Bar Association. Any school that diverges from these standards risks harm to its national ranking and therefore harm to its students in the job market. NALP and the ABA are, appropriately, modifying the way they collect placement data. We and other law schools will follow the new standards and the result will be greater transparency in placement information.
Legal scholarship has no practical value. This criticism mistakenly assumes that only applied scholarship has value, a standard that is not applied to other disciplines and should not be applied to law. In any event, much of the scholarship generated by our faculty has great practical significance.
Many of our faculty conduct research that is cited by courts and serve as expert witnesses or work of counsel to major law firms precisely because of the expertise their research affords them. Some testify before Congress, assist in drafting legislation, or advise state and federal regulatory bodies. Many engage in pro bono legal work and draft amicus briefs in significant cases. In short, our faculty are deeply engaged in scholarship that has both theoretical and practical implications, and their teaching and service to the community are richer for it.
I welcome your thoughts and suggestions as we continue to pursue the goal of providing the best possible legal education for generations to come.
Dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law