The recent meeting of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Education brought to media attention the widespread challenges facing legal education. The stresses include a poor job market for young attorneys, the high cost of legal education, the tremendous debt loads of law school graduates, the need for apprenticing opportunities for hands on training, and the divorce of well-paid and tenured faculty from the actual practice of law.
From a slightly different perspective, we can add the cost of legal services to this litany of woes. With legal fees running $250-$500 per hour on average and up to $1,000 per hour for certain specialties such as estate planning, what ordinary human being can afford to consult a lawyer? For the poor, the middle class, and small businesses, legal services are often beyond reach. Litigation, when the hours can mount up without limitation, is like playing Russian roulette. Justice will certainly favor the well-heeled rather than the well-intentioned.
So it isn’t just that a legal education costs too much. It’s that the law has become a tool for the wealthy and far too often fails to address the needs of the vast majority. If cutting a legal education from three years to two years will help graduates enter the bar with far less debt, perhaps it’s a good idea (although the third year of law school does continue the student’s education in the law). Maybe professors are paid a lot (although I’m fairly certain their pay is paltry compared to what they would earn as partners in top law firms) and perhaps some professors are divorced from the daily tussles of law firm practice, but it is a comforting thought that some legal scholars have bed and board to think about something other than billing the most hours to clients.
In short, if we’re going to reform legal education because it costs too much, let’s think about reforming legal services because such services also cost far too much. If we want to make law schools accessible and affordable, let’s consider doing the same for legal services. Let’s make the playing field level—for everybody.