Progressive Response to Rising Costs of Legal Education

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What Is the Progressive Response to Law School Costs?

SALT CoPresidents Jackie Gardina & Ngai Pindell

Brian Tamanaha’s recent article, The Failure of Crits and Leftist Law Professors to Defend Progressive Causes (24 STAN. L. & POL’Y), raises important concerns about the current cost of legal education and student debt. SALT agrees that these problems need to be addressed and that all law professors should be contributing to the conversation. SALT also believes that the cost of legal education is a complex problem that cannot be solved by simply eliminating tenure or making adjustments to the curriculum premised solely on cost reduction.

Tenure is not the cause of the rising cost of legal education nor is eliminating tenure the best path for lowering costs. Quality legal education requires that faculty be free to research, teach, and perform service (including through clinical representation) without fear of reprisal, and all faculty (doctrinal, clinical, and legal writing) must have an effective voice in shaping the educational program of the law school through full participation in faculty governance. In recent years, SALT has focused attention on protecting the academic freedom that we think full-time faculty must have to fully perform their responsibilities with respect to scholarship, teaching, clinical representation, governance, and service, and we have criticized the current hierarchies that undermine the ability of faculty in historically marginalized categories to contribute effectively to the law school mission, including enhancing student learning and practice-readiness.

SALT has been skeptical of legal education reforms that rely predominantly on cost-cutting measures that change the composition of faculties to depend more heavily on individuals with short- rather than long-term commitments to legal education. Proposals to change the composition of law school faculties and the focus of legal education have to be evaluated with an eye towards the long-term costs to students and communities. We believe that lawyers play a critical role in ensuring a just society and that legal education reform should be premised on how to best prepare new attorneys for that role.

High law student debt and high law school tuition have class implications as Tamanaha notes. The composition of law school faculties and the substantive content of law school curricula also significantly impact class concerns. SALT has consistently encouraged initiatives that open faculty and administrative ranks to under-represented groups, that help students from diverse economic and racial backgrounds view themselves as important components of a law school community, and that help both groups envision and explore the many ways that a legal education can positively impact the communities these students come from and care about.

The cost of legal education certainly impacts who is able to access these educational experiences. The SALT Board and SALT members have repeatedly engaged the intersection of cost, pedagogy, and practice. During the October 2012 SALT Teaching Conference in Baltimore, Maryland (Teaching Social Justice, Expanding Access to Justice: The Role of Legal Education and the Legal Profession), several panels addressed education costs directly, including “Costs in Legal Education: An Interactive Conversation with Deans” and “The Role of Law Schools in Supporting Solo and Small Firm Lawyers to Address Access to Justice.” One of the articles published from the Teaching Conference explores how the current political and economic pressures on law schools create an opportunity to transform legal education and address access to justice deficits in practice (Cathryn Miller-Wilson, Harmonizing Current Threats: Using the Outcry for Legal Education Reforms to Take Another Look at Civil Gideon and What it Means to be an American Lawyer, U. MD. L.J. RACE, RELIGION, GENDER & CLASS, forthcoming 2013). At the conference we also discussed the forthcoming “SALT Consumer Guide for Social Justice Minded Law Students.” The Consumer Guide educates students about the costs associated with law school and encourages them to consider those costs when determining whether and where to attend school. The guide directly confronts issues relating to the costs of law school and law school debt but it also examines other pressing issues that challenge legal education including admissions; the role of the LSAT and U.S. News & World Report rankings; the need for students to carefully assess the “fit” with a law school’s curricula and community; and the obligation of the legal profession (as well as its aspiring students) to serve social justice and the public interest.

We encourage our members to continue this conversation. What do progressive, liberal law professors think law schools and law professors ought to do about the rising cost of legal education? We encourage you to post your response here on the SALTBlog. SALT also plans to continue this conversation at the September 13, 2013 Diversity in Legal Education Leadership Conference at the University of Washington and there will also be opportunities at the upcoming LatCrit conference (October 3-5, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois) to engage this issue. Please keep the conversation going!