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Dean's Desk: Law schools can't be good, fast and cheap

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Dean Andrew KleinIt is no secret that legal education has faced criticism in recent years. In fact, a virtual cottage industry has developed around the topic. Entire websites and blogs are devoted to the theme, some specializing in cynical and sarcastic commentary.

Separating wheat from chaff in this environment is hard. Legal educators face serious issues and must deal with them head-on. But we should do so in a civil and thoughtful way, mindful of our obligation to prepare those who will steward our system of justice.

So here is a brief attempt to address the most salient criticisms that legal educators confront:

Law schools do not do enough to produce “practice-ready” lawyers. Some maintain that our curriculum fails to teach skills that new attorneys need in the real world.

Legal education is too expensive. Even at a school like mine, which has the lowest tuition price for Indiana residents, the cost of a J.D. degree is about $75,000 over three or four years.

Law schools are producing more graduates than the job market can absorb. Or perhaps more accurately, law school graduates are not finding work at a pay level sufficient to finance their debt.

Standing alone, these issues are difficult. But tackling them simultaneously poses a conundrum. The problem reminds me of an old business saying: “Good, Fast, Cheap. Pick Two.” As the saying suggests, it is nearly impossible to achieve all three at the same time. Providing a good product fast won’t be cheap. Providing a cheap product fast won’t be good. And providing a good product cheap … well, that can’t be accomplished fast.

So what do we do?

First, the issue of producing “practice-ready” lawyers is important, but hardly new. In fact, it has been a topic of heated discussion for at least a generation. I actually think law schools are doing a better job on that front than ever before. Many schools, like mine, invest heavily in legal writing programs and live-client clinics. That is definitely good. But it is not cheap. Faculty who engage in skills training work intensely and individually with students. On a per student basis, this costs far more than, say, streaming a video of a lecture and calling it education.

Understand that this is not a complaint. Investment in experiential education is critical. Developing great lawyers also requires the time, investment and passion of experienced members of the bar. One of the reasons I am excited about being dean at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law is because of our close relationship with so many outstanding lawyers in this community. Our partnership with the bar is what will lead to the success of the next generation of lawyers; it is not a magic bullet in the law school curriculum.

What about the cost of legal education? Again, we have no dearth of suggestions. Some promote two-year law degrees. Others argue that we should de-professionalize the legal academy and provide more, if not most, of our instruction through part-time faculty or distance education. Those steps would save costs, but I doubt they would lead to the development of truly good professionals, ready to represent clients on Day 1. I often ask those in practice: If we reduce the amount of legal education, are you prepared to pick up the mantle and provide even more training for new lawyers than you do now?

I believe that one of the most important steps toward addressing the cost issue is to focus on flexibility. That is another reason I am proud to lead the McKinney School of Law. We are the only school in the region that still offers a part-time evening program. Being able to work while pursuing a legal education can make school more affordable and, for many, provide excellent experiences as well. I hope members of the bar will stand up to those who say we should cut corners when preparing new lawyers. Society has too much at stake to risk being fast and cheap, without worrying about being good.

Regarding employment opportunities, the market for legal work is not the only aspect of our economy that has faced disruption since the Great Recession. But pockets of society still face unmet needs for legal services. This includes more than just people with low incomes. A recent article by a professor at Albany Law School pointed out that many in the middle class cannot afford adequate legal representation. The article asserted that opportunities do exist for creative and motivated attorneys who can find ways to deliver quality legal services to those who are underserved.

Finally – and perhaps most important – I think it’s important for all lawyers to convey pride in our profession and what it stands for. In that sense, I end my column where I started – with my view that too much of our conversation is driven by anonymous critics, sarcasm and cynicism. As an antidote, I recently read a book called “The Devil in the Grove,” by Gilbert King. It recounts the story of a young Thurgood Marshall representing four young men in Groveland, Fla., in the late 1940s. The men had been wrongly accused of a heinous crime.

One thing that struck me early in the book was a quote from Marshall’s assistant about how Marshall was received by people when he traveled to small towns during that period of time. His assistant recalled: “They came in their jalopy cars and their overalls. All they wanted to do – if they could – was just touch him, just touch him. Lawyer Marshall, as if he were a god.”

People looked up to Marshall, not just because of who he was, but because of his profession. They recognized that when injustice needed confrontation – it was the law, and by extension the lawyer, to whom they looked.

I am proud to be part of that tradition, and equally proud to be leading an institution that will train the lawyers of tomorrow.•

__________

Andrew R. Klein is the dean and the Paul E. Beam Professor of Law at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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