Essay

The Crises in Legal Education

By Victor Gold
Illustration by Simon Pemberton

American legal education faces three crises. The first is financial. For the past generation, the cost of a law school education has increased at twice the rate of the cost of living. As a result, tuition and fees at all accredited law schools in California are now in excess of $40,000 per year. At the same time, the recession has taken a toll on employment opportunities and salaries in the legal profession, leading many to question whether a legal education is a worthwhile investment.

The second crisis is one of content. Law schools traditionally have done a poor job of training students to practice law. Law professors don’t teach the skills needed to practice law because, not to put too fine a point on it, most academics lack those skills. Skills training is also labor intensive and much more costly than lecturing on abstract legal doctrine to a large class. This traditional way of teaching law was acceptable at a time when law firm jobs were plentiful. In those days, new law grads did not need to enter the job market equipped to practice law because law firms undertook the effort to train their new lawyers. But times have changed — now most firms only want to hire attorneys who know what they are doing from Day One. This crisis concerning the content of legal education exacerbates the effect of the financial crisis by producing law graduates poorly prepared to compete in the job market.

As challenging as these first two crises are, the third crisis may be the most difficult to overcome. This is because it is a crisis of spirit. Colored by the relentlessly negative depiction of lawyers in movies and on television, many law students come to law school with a jaded sense of what it means to be an attorney. Money, not justice, is the operative ideal. High tuition and a poor job market accentuate this focus on the financial bottom line.

At Loyola Law School, we work hard to address the first two crises with programs that teach skills, enhance the job prospects of our students and ease students’ tuition burden. In the upcoming academic year, scholarships will total a record $8.7 million. This fall will also see the start of the first skills-based concentration programs in the history of the law school. Concentrations in civil litigation and criminal trial practice will feature classes taught by experienced lawyers or judges and will include unprecedented opportunities for our students to earn academic credit while working in the real world. Other concentration programs in business law, international law and public interest law are in the planning stages. In short, we are rapidly transforming our curriculum to better prepare our graduates for the job market.

With our Jesuit and Marymount traditions, we have a head start in addressing the crisis of spirit. From its origin in 1920, Loyola Law School has emphasized the responsibility of lawyers to advance social justice. Ours was the first ABA-approved law school in California with a mandatory pro bono requirement. As a result, law students donate more than 16,000 hours of pro bono legal work every year. Every summer, we provide grants that support 70 students doing public interest law projects.

Loyola has a range of academic programs that address society’s most challenging social issues, including the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide, the Center for Restorative Justice, the Immigrant’s Rights Practicum, the Cancer Legal Resource Center, the Education Advocacy Program, the Military
Veterans Justice Project, the Center for Conflict Resolution, and the Disability Rights Legal Center. Few law schools approach the breadth of Loyola’s commitment to social justice and pro bono work. Indeed, the National Jurist magazine now ranks the school No. 8 (of almost 200 accredited law schools) for its public interest programs.

These programs not only send a message about the social responsibility of a lawyer, they produce economic benefits for our students by giving them the opportunity to serve real clients and learn the practical skills needed in law practice. These efforts also provide networking opportunities that can lead to full-time employment in the public interest sector. Thus, our public interest programs help us to meet the challenges presented by each of the three crises.

Victor Gold is senior vice president, LMU, and Fritz B. Burns Dean and Professor of Law at Loyola Law School.