Epstein on the Problems Facing Legal Education

Has Legal Education Lost Its Way?
Richard A. Epstein
July 17, 2012

Now that the new academic year is coming up fast, there have been a wealth of complaints about the sorry state of American legal education. These are not wild-eyed laments from individuals who think that their first duty is to bring down the legal establishment and all the corrupt practices it is said to stand for. Quite the opposite, most of the objections to the current situation come right out of the standard manuals of sustainable business models.

As a recent story by Lincoln Caplan in the New York Times notes, there are all too many recent graduates of American law schools who can not fund their debts on graduation out of their future earnings from the legal profession—or, for that matter, from anywhere else. The message in question ripples through the ranks of prospective law students, who come (quite sensibly) to the conclusion that they are well-advised to look elsewhere for a career. The shift of course is not all or nothing: many students will still think that they can do well in a legal career.  But their numbers will be down, which will in turn put huge pressures on law schools to cut their enrollments and to whittle down the size and costs of their faculties. These results are reflected all-too-clearly in the rapid decline of the number of students taking the LSAT test—down by nearly 25 percent in the last two years. The decline in the number of applicants will closely track that number, and it is likely to infect all law schools, from top to bottom.

The causes of the current downturn are many, and they are not likely to be reversed any time soon. Part of the problem is that many legal jobs need no longer be done by lawyers, or at least by lawyers in the United States. Document searches can often be organized better by computers. For many tasks that do not require client communication, the work can be outsourced to India and other places with deep pools of legal talent possessing more than enough training to do these jobs at cut-rate prices. That trend will never be reversed. It will only intensify over time.

Richard A. Epstein