Are Law Schools and Bar Exams Necessary?

I’m all for democratization of knowledge and seeing fewer barriers to entry for business, but I found this op-ed by Clifford Winston totally off-base. Winston argues that law schools and bar exams are unnecessary and should be done away with:

What if the barriers to entry were simply done away with?

Legal costs would be reduced because non-lawyers, who have not had to make a costly investment in a three-year legal education, would compete with lawyers, who in many states are the only options for basic services like drafting wills. Because they will have incurred much lower costs to enter the field — like taking an online course or attending a vocational school — and can operate as solo practitioners with minimal overhead, these non-lawyers would force prices to fall. The poor would benefit from the lower prices for non-criminal matters, and poor litigants, who might be unrepresented in criminal matters like hearings because they could not afford a lawyer and because of dwindling state legal aid, would be better off.

As a counter-argument, Jeoffrey Stone writes:

[L]egal education exposes would-be lawyers to a wide range of legal subjects — procedure, contracts, torts, criminal law, evidence, constitutional law, corporate law, property law, administrative law, jurisdiction, labor law, commercial law and on and on and on. This, too, is essential for the intelligent practice of law.

I would like to add one other important item: networking. By going to law school, you are exposed to the community of professors, lawyers, and other professionals in the field. As you start to get into the practice, this reach becomes invaluable.

Another scenario to imagine: suppose you hired a self-taught lawyer who bombs your case. You want to sue. So you end up hiring another lawyer who turns out to have insignificant experience (he was also self-taught). The whole situation could easily spiral out of control, with number of litigations skyrocketing. Sure, overall costs per case might decrease with self-taught lawyers. But do we really want to see the number of cases litigations rise (as they surely would) as a side effect? I surely don’t.

And a final food for thought: if we say that law schools are useless and that people could gain entry by being self-taught, what’s to prevent others clamoring for the barriers to entry to be disbarred in other professions? Would you want to go on an operating table with a doctor who didn’t go to medical school?

Surely I haven’t thought about all the implications here, but Winston’s idea seems short-sighted to me.

What are your thoughts?

Law Schools: A Rip-Off?

In a troubling New York Times piece, we learn how profitable law schools really are. They make graduate school look great by comparsion…

Legal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.

Whereas some departments are struggling to hire more professors, in law school it is a different story:

It is one of the academy’s open secrets: law schools toss off so much cash they are sometimes required to hand over as much as 30 percent of their revenue to universities, to subsidize less profitable fields.

In short, law schools have the power to raise prices and expand in ways that would make any company drool. And when a business has that power, it is apparently difficult to resist.

And a striking example from New York Law School (N.Y.L.S.):

N.Y.L.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country, but with tuition and fees now set at $47,800 a year, it charges more than Harvard. It increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded. It reported in the most recent US News & World Report rankings that the median starting salary of its graduates was the same as for those of the best schools in the nation — even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount…

And the most damning fact in the piece:

From 1989 to 2009, when college tuition rose by 71 percent, law school tuition shot up 317 percent.

Run, don’t walk, away from law schools.

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Related: Is getting a PhD worth it?