The Law School Reform Panic

By Scott Burris

I am going to take a slight detour from health law to talk about legal education. This week the Times was all over a story about the need to drastically reform law school right now, and in the classic panic mode, one particular model was being embraced with the same unmixed faith with which a drowning person embraces a life preserver: cutting law school to two years. This was a main suggestion of the poster boy of reform, Brian Tamanaha.  I liked his book as a call to arms and expose. I learned, for example, that I was employed by one of the few schools that did not run up faculty salaries. What I didn’t like is the focus on cost: there’s probably a lot more wrong with law school than the price tag, and, in the absence of  evidence or even a serious theory, I don’t see how shortening law school would solve its problems.

Brian talks a lot about cost and time spent in school, and much of this discussion seems to me to assume that law school is mainly about training people to be lawyers within a fairly traditional conception of what the proper training for a lawyer should be.  He recounts disagreements, repeated many times over a century, between a “trade school” and an “academic” model. In the former, students learn the basic skills of research and writing (and we’d add nowadays things like interviewing and counseling and trial practice), while in the latter there is also some sort of additional training, or an approach to learning, that entails getting a broader understanding of the legal system.

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