In Defense of a Legal Education

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Written By Hazel Weiser

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, the originator of the citizen-lawyer

Amidst the discouraging stream of newspaper articles and blogs this summer demonizing law school deans, accusing university presidents of raiding law school tuition revenues, and suggesting a giant conspiracy to cover up the fact that there are very few $160,000 a year jobs for recent law school graduates, it appears that only the oblivious might consider enrolling in law school this fall.  I beg to disagree.  Now is the right time to encourage students from diverse racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds to consider a legal education.  We cannot allow the legal profession a detour from its mission to produce lawyers and leaders from all communities due to the economic downturn.

At a time when our country, actually the entire planet, needs a large and diverse reservoir of talented civic leaders with analytical capacity, problem solving, and mediation skills, law school seems like a fantastic educational option.  It’s the place where we study the structures that regulate the relationships between individuals and groups, government and business, and of course, individuals and government.  Because legal study is inherently political (although I went to law school when admitting that was considered heresy), law schools offer the curious and the intellectually prepared an opportunity to critique society and the ways in which we have tried (and failed, sometimes) to regulate, to induce, to cajole, to punish, and the ways in which we have succeeded in making a fairer and more inclusive society.  There is always a tension between liberty and equality, between the individual and the group, between justice and the status quo.  We need a generation of thinkers and activists to study these concepts and learn how to use them in democratic self-government.

A university-based education should be the training of the “citizen-lawyer” as Thomas Jefferson once wrote to James Madison.  (July 26, 1780 letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison)  Jefferson did not intend this expansive education to be limited to legal doctrine and the intricacies of pre-code pleading.  He envisioned a liberal education to be the study of political theory, modern and ancient history, and moral philosophy.  Jefferson understood that the new nation needed a generation of virtuous leaders with knowledge of the rationale behind this experiment in government who through professionalism would place the public interest above their own person interests.   That’s how the law school at the College of William & Mary was started, the first American law school.   I recommend a read or reread of Paul D. Carrington’s The Revolutionary Idea of a University Legal Education, 31 W&M L.Rev. 527 (1990), especially as the ABA Section on Legal Education completes its comprehensive review of the standards for governing law schools.

The theme of the citizen-lawyer meandered its way into the Preamble to the Model Code of Ethics where lawyers are reminded of our obligation to be “public citizens” with a responsibility to improve the legal system, provide legal assistance to the poor, and open the doors to greater justice.  (SALT’s Access to Justice Committee, co-chaired by Doug Colbert and Pamela Bridgewater, is moving forward with plans to help professors infuse the law school curriculum with a lifelong commitment to serve the public interest.)

Yet those darned U.S. News & World Report rankings are making it more difficult for students of color, newcomers to the United States, and law school applicants from moderate and lower income families to get to law school without incurring horrendous student debt.  There has been a significant shift in scholarship money over the last five years from need-based grants to “merit” scholarships.  The adjective “merit” is, of course, a misnomer.  What it really means is that law schools are buying J.D. applicants with higher LSAT scores and GPAs in order to get themselves up a notch on the U.S. News rankings.

Some background for those of you who were busy this summer working on scholarship rather than following the news within the legal academy.  Back in July, Senator Charles Grassley sent a letter to then ABA President Stephen Zeck demanding answers to questions concerning scholarships, loan defaults, the number of law schools that have been approved by the ABA, and governance of the ABA Section. The letter was in response to an April 30th article in The New York Times in which students complained that they were induced to come to law school with “merit” scholarships and then could not maintain the grade-point averages required to keep those scholarships.  That was followed by a very negative article that had appeared June 9th in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which the ABA Section was criticized for not being in compliance with seventeen accreditation standards in its oversight of law schools.  One of those defaults was the failure to collect data on loan default rates.

On July 20 the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar responded. In its memorandum, a surprising figure was revealed.  Between 2005 and 2010, the amount of scholarship money offered to law school students by individual law schools and universities increased from $536 million to $899 million, an increase of over 67%.  However, the total number of recipients of these scholarships grew only from 60,000 to 69,000 students.  By 2010 47% of law school students were getting some form of financial assistance.  But this is the surprising figure, found in Attachment 4 of the July 20 memorandum.   The number of students receiving need based scholarships decreased by 3, 171 from 2005 to 2010 although the total amount of need based scholarships provided by law schools and universities increased by $23 million.  That increase might seem reasonable, until we compare it to the increase of “merit” scholarships during that same period.  In 2005 31,265 students received some form of “merit” financial assistance.  By 2010 that figure increased by 8,580 to 39,845 students.   But the increase in the amount of “merit” scholarship funding is astronomical: between 2005 and 2010, “merit” financial aid increased by $231 million, that’s ten times the increase in the availability of need based scholarships.

There is another category of financial assistance that was not adequately explained: scholarship money that was distributed based on need plus other factors.  These numbers also increased during the five year period, by $108 million, going to over 20,000 students, an increase of almost 4,000 recipients.

Senator Grassley is still unconvinced by the ABA Section response.  On August 8, Senator Grassley sent a second set of questions based on his reading of the ABA’s July 20nd memo. That response is requested by August 22nd.  Much of Senator Grassley’s concern is for student loan default rates if recent law school graduates can’t find jobs.  What does this mean for the American taxpayer?

Law faculty can raise our voices so that individual law schools reexamine their priorities regarding scholarships.  We need a diverse legal profession.  We need skilled leaders who don’t pray for rain but use of the power of government and international treaties do something about climate change, consumption, and limited resources.  Tick, tock, tick tock.