I’ve written before about the current crisis in legal education. And I write from the perspective of an interested bystander. I like the idea of well-educated lawyers, but I also think that legal scholarship is often impractical and insufficiently strategic.

Moreover, it seems that the standard complaints about law school at this point are that (1) it is too expensive; (2) it does not teach one how to be a lawyer; and (3) it turns out too many lawyers for too few legal jobs. One could characterize all of these objections in economic terms like this: a profession like law requires barriers to entry, both for the good of the non-specialist consumer and the sustainability of the profession. (Here, barriers to entry are just another term for a way of making people self-select for a limited number of slots.) There is no question that there are high barriers to entry right now to being a lawyer; it costs a bundle to go to law school. But making cost the barrier to entry focuses on the wrong thing. Instead, we want ability and drive to be the barriers to entry.

So here’s another crazy idea: make law school more like the US Armed Forces War Colleges. For those who don’t know what they are, the War Colleges (the US Army War College, the US Naval War College, and the Air War College) are institutions that train leadership candidates in strategic and operational disciplines to make US war fighting more effective. They offer one-year courses of study that focus heavily on basic strategy and cutting edge tactics. And they sponsor research and scholarship as well, but with a distinct bias towards material that can actually be deployed in conflicts. Like law school, they focus on training critical thinkers and inculcating some sense of a profession. Unlike law school, they largely can’t afford to crawl too far up their own intestines.

So how would this crazy blog-post proposal work in practice? Well, we’d have to switch up the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools.

  1. Candidates for law school would spend two to three years as paralegals or other legal paraprofessionals. (Professional document reviewers, perhaps.) They would do this in the employ of law firms, public interest law groups, or the government, which would pay them salaries at market rates.
  2. Admission to law school would be contingent on paralegal experience, and would require sponsorship by the employing institution. (Some institutions might even agree to provide some monetary sponsorship, much as some business firms will pay some business-school tuition.)
  3. Law school would be clinical from the get-go. The primary course would be a clinic. Basic first-year courses would be taught as well, but with a hard focus on practical applications to current cases.
  4. Law school would employ mostly JDs with practice experience as faculty. It might also employ some specialized non-legal faculty, in areas like economics, history, psychology, and literature (practical rhetoric is, after all, a vital legal skill). And, of course, JD/PhDs would be more than welcome. But those faculty would also be focused on research that helped develop legal strategies.
  5. The course would be either one or two years, and cost less than current law school. Fewer loans would be available, since there would be a presumption that the candidates could afford to pay some out of pocket from their previous employment.

This approach would offer some of the same benefits we supposedly get from the current model:

  • It would keep the focus on critical thinking, making arguments, and legal strategy (to the extent those currently exist).
  • It would continue to inculcate professional values into young lawyers, including a concern for benefiting society.
  • It would allow for interesting, practical scholarship of value to judges and the legal profession.
  • It would be agnostic about the kind of law practiced after graduation. Graduates could still work solo, work in-house, work for the government, work for public interest groups, or even–Heaven forfend–work for law firms.

But it would also offer some distinct advantages over the current model:

  • The focus would be on training actual practicing lawyers, instead of baby law professors or baby federal judges.
  • * Young lawyers would go into law school with a much better idea of what practice looks like. Law school would no longer be the default for lost liberal arts graduates who test well.
  • Becoming a lawyer would be more a question of opportunity cost than up-front funds, a more reliable method of sorting the truly committed from the trustifarians.
  • Young lawyers would graduate with significantly less debt, which should in the long run reduce the costs of hiring a lawyer.
  • There would be more competition for paralegal jobs and document review, which would lower the costs of discovery and routine legal tasks.
  • There would be a renewed focus on law as a learned profession as opposed to a path to owning a private jet. (So it would be harder to get rich as a lawyer, but much easier to make a living.)

I am under no illusions that the ABA will adopt this suggestion any time in the near future. And I am sure there are a number of distinct disadvantages, too. (Feel free to share them in the comments.) But when a system is as broken as the current legal education system is, people should be considering all kinds of oddball ideas. And you can’t deny, this is certainly one of those.