Sunday, February 10, 2013

Could a Bare Bones Law School Succeed?

In an earlier post, I described how a law school could provide a no-frills legal education for a small fraction of the current cost, ten thousand dollars a year for two years. That raises the interesting question of whether something along those lines could succeed under current circumstances.

The two problems I discussed were ABA certification requirements and pressure due to the US News and World Reports rankings. The school I described would not get certified and it would not get a high ranking. But graduating from an ABA certified school is not a requirement to take the California Bar, and law schools that score low in the USNWR ratings still get students—at a price lower than the top schools but still much higher than what I am proposing. 

Checking the online description of what is required to be admitted to the California bar, the requirements include one of the following:
  • J. D. degree from a law school accredited by the State Bar of California or approved by the ABA;
  • Four years of study at a fixed-facility law school registered with the Committee;
  • Four years of study, with a minimum of 864 hours of preparation and study per year, at an unaccredited distance-learning or correspondence law school registered with the Committee;
  • Four years of study in the law office/judge’s chambers study program; or
  • A combination of these methods.
My BBLS will not be approved by the ABA and probably not accredited by the state bar, so its students will have to put in four years, but that could include time apprenticing in a law office with some supervision by the school, so it should be possible to do it as two years of classes, at a cost of ten thousand dollars a year, plus two more years of apprenticeship at a much lower cost—with, presumably, some salary going to the apprentice. Call it a total of thirty thousand.

The school faces a problem that it shares with any school that wants to improve its reputation. It will be judged by the performance of its graduates, most immediately their bar passage rate. That depends partly on the school and partly on the graduates, and until it gets a good reputation good students will go elsewhere.

The problem might be insoluble if BBLS had to start out by competing with relatively good schools, say the top hundred in the USNWR ranking, but it doesn't. It starts out competing with other unaccredited schools. Compared to them, it has one large and obvious advantage—a savings of close to a hundred thousand dollars. That should give it its pick of students who can't get into an accredited school, or can get into one but can't afford it, as well as some who can afford it but choose not to. With better students than other unaccredited schools and at least equally good instruction—what it's saving money on isn't the education but the gold plating—it ought to get better bar passage rates. Which will bring better students. Which will  ... .

It just might work, which raises the question of why nobody, so far as I know, has done it yet.



Ted Levy said...

This may have been a great idea a few decades ago, but if there's currently a glut of lawyers on the market, getting a law degree, even a cheap one, may not be the way to go.

David Friedman said...

Getting a law degree may not be the way to go--but that's partly because getting one is so expensive.

Ted Levy said...

Well, yes, of course. I appreciate one must compare costs and benefits. My point was merely that in the context of a glut, the calculation changes. If you were told "Spend 2-4 years of your life perusing a law degree--it's FREE--but there are NO JOBS for lawyers anymore," it probably wouldn't make sense to pursue it. Granted, today, even with a housing glut, people still build houses, so my argument is merely suggestive, not definitive.

Laura Dickerson said...

The combination plan is common (required? I'm not sure) in England. I have no idea what it costs. A quick search provided this example

Tom W. Bell said...

Comment? Yeah: Let's do it. Your son does a mean business plan and it wouldn't take that much capital. I'm thinking a combo of lecture videos followed by law labs (applied exercises) and low-paying (but paying!) apprentice work.

Jonathan said...

So this is why I never became a lawyer. Clearly, in order to do so (at least in the USA), you need rich parents. When I was young, neither I nor my parents could have afforded even your cheap plan.

Daublin said...

Keep in mind that the lawyer gut is itself largely a matter of price controls.

I constantly encounter people asking legal questions. They usually quickly decide, "we need to ask a lawyer to really find out". More often than not, the next step after that is, "we can't afford it".

There's plenty of legal work around if you are willing to flaunt the current norms of pricing.

Ted Levy said...

Daublin: "Keep in mind that the lawyer gut is itself largely a matter of price controls"

I thought it was largely a matter of beer subsidies...:-)

Benjamin. said...

David, what is your opinion of the restrictions on practicing law?
Do you think that people should have to even pass an exam to be legally allowed to practice law?

David Friedman said...

Response to Benjamin:

As long as the government is running the court system, I think it is reasonable for it to have rules about who it is willing to let play various roles in that system--represent a plaintiff in a tort suit, for instance. I don't think it has any legitimate claim for restrictions outside that sort of context, such as restrictions on who can offer legal advice of one sort or another.

Nightrunner said...

Can you think of a creative way to reduce the number of lawyers?

eccdogg said...

Could you combine the bare bones law school with a bare bones law firm?

Essentially everyone gets hired as an apprentice right out of college. The firm only hires the graduates of its own apprentice program and charges cut rate prices.

Students work for the firm and attend classes and then apprentice for the firm and ultimately become partners.

Eric Rasmusen said...

Tuition at this new Cal. law school is only $12,000/year.

Do the bar review courses operate any law schools in California? They're the natural ones to do so.

eccdogg has a great idea in the comment above: start an apprenticeship law school. Tuition coudl be negative--- say -$5000/year, if the minimum wage law allows it (or 0 for the first 3 years, $20,000 for the last).