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The Perfect Law School

Thanks for the invitation and the opportunity to muse about the future of law schools.  I am currently on our dean search committee, so I’ve been in a lot of conversations lately about delivering quality legal education.  Reading these posts, I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that all law schools should aspire to the same model.  I think legal education would benefit from differentiation among law schools.  Mike has talked about the sorting effect of law schools, and I wonder why there is not much sorting done or demanded by either the student population or law schools.

From listening to student conversations and the occasional link to an admitted student website, it seems that most students choose the highest-ranking school to which they get accepted.  On the margins, some choices are made because of scholarship money or geographic location, but the heaviest weighed factor seems to be pure USNWR rankings.  Although the law is a big place, neither the consumers or producers seem to demand too much specialization — an environmental law school, a litigation law school, a business law school.  Oh, some schools have reputations (Vermont for environmental, Baylor for litigation), but these are few and far between.  Some schools will gain a reputation by offering a specialized LL.M. (NYU for tax), but again these are rare.  Schools may be differentiated by ideology or perceived ideology, but again that accounts for only a handful and that doesn’t really get to differentiation of skills training.

So, we say that law schools don’t teach people how to practice, but how can they?  When I was in college (as an English major in the College of Arts & Sciences), we used to say that a liberal arts education teaches you how to learn because the job that you will eventually have has not been invented today.  As others have pointed out, law schools are liberal arts education.  We give students the tools to be able to pick up specialized skills elsewhere, but does it have to be that way?  What if we really did have differentiation — schools for plaintiffs lawyers, defense litigators, commercial litigators, securities attorneys, criminal prosecutors, etc.  Schools could focus on specific skills from the beginning, and the law school experience would be deep instead of broad.

There are some problems, of course.  Students would have to make a decision before entering law school as to what area they wanted to practice in, or make a costly switch later.  Some schools could market themselves as generalists, like liberal arts colleges, however.  Some schools could even market themselves as schools that prepare graduates for teaching.  Schools would be different sizes, and would have different types of faculties.  Instead of having the constant tension between resources at schools different emphases on teaching, research and service, faculties could be more united in their common goals.  As other posters have mentioned, the “mini-university” law school is a lot of fun for both students and faculty, but it’s fairly expensive to do well and may not lead to better outcomes, if better-skilled attorneys is the goal.  If, however, different types of law schools had different goals and formats, students could choose between them.

I would also envision that these law schools would vary as to tuition.