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Critics of law schools have two main objections: they’re too expensive and they don’t adequately prepare students to work as lawyers.

New York University is the latest law school to try to address the second issue. Motivated by the 2008 financial crisis, Dean Richard Revesz convened a committee of leading lawyers, all NYU Law alumni, to evaluate the school’s curriculum. The committee found five areas for improvement, and NYU announced Wednesday new initiatives aimed at better training (and training better) lawyers.

The curriculum enhancements include a study abroad option during the third year of law school, a chance to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., a “pathways” program for third-year students who have a specific area of law they want to specialize in, an increased focus on business and financial education, and a leadership development program.

So far, most of the programs are optional, except for a financial literacy course that will be required of first-year students; Revesz said the school will evaluate the effectiveness of the various initiatives and could require them down the road. For now, he expects that most students will opt to take advantage of at least one.

Most of the new programs are aimed at improving the third year of law school, a topic that has been particularly controversial in the discussion of legal education. Since the American Bar Association got rid of its three-year requirement (it now requires a certain number of units instead), there has been much talk about just how necessary that third year really is.

Some law schools have introduced an accelerated option that allows students to earn a J.D. in five semesters, but those students still take the same number of courses and pay the same tuition. Others, like NYU, have tried to revamp the third-year experience, usually by focusing on clinical learning. A survey by the ABA found that between 2002 and 2010, law schools increased all aspects of “skills instruction,” like clinical practice and externships.

“Our feeling was what we should do is make the third year as meaningful as possible,” Revesz said.

The ABA survey also found that 76 percent of curriculum changes were driven by the evolving demands of the job market. That, Revesz said, is largely what influenced the development of the new programs at NYU.

But curriculum changes aimed at addressing the tough job market often fail to address the difficult financial situation of many law students, and this has some experts on legal education worried.

Kenneth Anderson, a law professor at American University, writes on the blog “The Volokh Conspiracy” that law school less an investment, as it may once have been, than a bet. That’s because, he writes, the job market for lawyers is tough, and the cost of education is high.

“It doesn’t really matter how great the education is if it simply costs more than its rate of return to a student,” Anderson writes.

Yet, improving education (rather than trying to reduce prices) is the tack that most law schools, including NYU, have been taking. Barry Currier, interim consultant on legal education for the ABA, said that while some schools have frozen tuition, it’s rare to see a school take steps to actually reduce its costs or the prices it charges students.

“Most schools are focusing on trying to improve education,” he said. “They’re mindful of cost, but not really trying to reduce cost.”

The price of a legal education is a frequent topic of discussion, Currier said, but the goal of offering cheaper education often conflicts with the goal of providing better education, and it seems the latter typically wins.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a school like NYU, Currier said.

“It’s perfectly in line with where NYU sees itself in the market, but not too many schools are going to be able to do this,” he said.

For Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, that’s the core of the issue.

“For the NYUs, Chicagos, Harvards, and Yales of the world, this might be the direction they need to take their schools, but the problem happens when the schools below them start to emulate them,” McEntee said. “That’s part of the reason the price of education has gone up.”

McEntee thinks programs aimed at improving legal education distract law schools from the question of cost, which he believes should be the main issue. He says no school has figured out a way to make education more efficient and to reduce tuition, and as legal jobs and salaries dwindle, students are being put in a difficult position.

“This can’t go on and it won’t go on,” he said.

He notes that it won’t be easy, because it’s ultimately easier for schools to expand than to cut back. Currier echoed this, saying that while some schools have discussed the theoretical notion of getting rid of the third year, none have taken the step of looking at logistics and figuring out exactly how to make that transition.

“The second question from a school standpoint is, how would you get there? Close down a third of your buildings? How would you transition? That conversation is not really happening yet,” Currier said.

Instead, schools focus on curricular changes in the third year, as NYU did. Those are certainly valuable, Currier said, and NYU students will benefit from the plethora of new opportunities being offered to them, but they are not making law school any cheaper. 

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