We Need More Law Schools. Yes. We Really Do. Here’s Why.

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Many people talk about Access to Justice (A2J), the big legal movement of the 21st century.  But the biggest hurdle to A2J is the delivery of the legal education itself. The organization who controls what constitutes a valid education to gain a license to practice law is the American Bar Association (ABA). They determine accreditation.  And as we all know, in order to sit for the bar exam you have to have graduated from an ABA-accredited law school (with the exception of California, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming).

Yes, it’s true. The ABA is the greatest hurdle to providing access to justice for the millions in this country who need affordable legal services. Let me tell you why.

Many of you have a knee-jerk reaction when you hear that another law school is opening and seeking accreditation.  ‘No more lawyers!  We can’t employ the lawyers we have.  There’s a glut of unemployed lawyers.  Pull up the drawbridge.  No more lawyers crossing the moat. The castle is full.’  Well, that is precisely the wrong response.

What we have is basically a cartel of grossly over-priced law schools forcing the majority of those who want to practice law into mortgaging their futures.  These students graduate not only poorly trained for today’s realities, but without jobs.  Ironically, one could even survive this and move on were it not for the crippling debt forcing them to take any job just to pay back loans.  No careers in the law.  No prospects to get a high enough paying job to pay back these notes. They really can’t move on because they are emotionally and financially bankrupted. They are also ill-equipped to innovate, come up with new ways to service clients in a cost-effective manner while still being able to put food on the table because of the heavy toll they have had to pay for the privilege of being called ‘lawyer’.  I blame the ABA.

We have more than 200 ABA-accredited law schools operating within a broken educational model.  When something is broken those who are in the middle of the chaos are ill-equipped to fix it.  That’s why we need more law schools, schools that operate outside the traditional ABA-approved model that will educate lawyers as they should be educated and at a price they can afford.  And not just a price they can afford, but at a price that allows the new law grad to walk away from the profession if the economy takes a downturn.

Sacrilege? I think not.

There is only one wholly online law school (unaccredited) in California that I believe has a model that actually works and would satisfy the ABA if they would just allow themselves to enter an alternate universe free from the law school education cartel.  It also begs the question, why isn’t this school allowed to be accredited in California or elsewhere?  St. Francis Law School is a model which should be replicated.

The annual tuition for St. Francis School of Law is $8,000. Tuition does not include the cost of a computer, Internet access, or textbooks. The best effort estimate of the costs of books and study materials is $1,000 to $1,200 per year. The best estimate cost of textbooks for four years of study is $4,000 to $4,800.

Yes, you read this right!  And this school gets high marks all around.  They are also a school catering to primarily very high-caliber applicants who are already in the work force and can handle learning online. They are also the only  not-for-profit wholly online law school in the country.  They don’t accept 1200 students a year and churn and burn for profit. Classes are generally around 15 students with two faculty members and ‘live interactive’ classrooms from the comfort of your computer. You have writing assignments, independent study, group projects and exams. They are transparent about what one can expect upon graduation. Many of their students are employed in their careers and looking to enhance their professional resume with a legal degree and practical skills. Their students are highly motivated and one could argue, more mature.  But the big takeaway is if this is a model that is working, why shouldn’t there be more like this tweaked for the typical law student and accredited?

Wholly online J.D. programs are not accredited by the American Bar Association, and graduates of the programs are eligible only to take the California Bar Exam, given that it’s the only state in which online law schools can officially register (though some states have been known to make exceptions on an individual basis). In all, there are 12 unaccredited distance or correspondence law schools registered in California, including Concord Law School of Kaplan University, California School of Law, and the Abraham Lincoln University School of Law.

It should be noted the ABA pretty much shocked the legal community in 2014 when it approved the first hybrid law program at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. The ABA’s approval of the new half-online, half-onsite program could be viewed as the first step toward the approval of a fully online law degree.  But it still misses the point: Tuition is still $20,000 per year!  You can’t price the program at a discount from traditional education.  It must operate under a completely new model and be built and priced from the ground up.

Access to Justice requires that those who wish to get a good legal education in a more innovative and cost-effective way should not be prevented from doing so because of the ABA’s outdated requirements keeping innovative law schools at bay.  Potential students should not be prevented from becoming lawyers because they are mandated to take on life-altering debt from a traditional law school. When you have existing or traditional law schools creating hybrids, it is an outgrowth of their current profit model and law school structure.  This won’t work, at least not in any meaningful way for the majority of potential law students because it doesn’t address the ridiculous tuition which is still charged.  The ABA needs to recognize that current tuition is a huge deterrent to success. And this cost is a huge obstacle when addressing A2J. Newer, wholly online law schools following the model of St. Francis Law School need to get full accreditation and fast.

Were there a physical shortage of living, breathing lawyers, the ABA would be rethinking their approach, I would hope.  But this misconception, that there are too many lawyers, has them protecting the current cartel of law schools.  It’s a misguided approach for law students, today’s clients and the profession.

Let’s stop screaming there are too many law schools.  Let’s start replicating St. Francis Law School’s model, get them accredited and forever change the legal education landscape.


This entry was posted in Law School Innovation, Subjective Opinions, The BS-Free Zone and tagged Access to Justice, Susan Cartier Liebel. Bookmark the permalink.

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8 comments on “We Need More Law Schools. Yes. We Really Do. Here’s Why.

    • Well, not sure that’s going to happen. What we need is pressure on the law school cartel to get with the program and lower tuition. This is the only way the pressure will force their hand. And you’re assumption that the education has to be bad or the applicants unqualified is the position the ABA takes. It’s the wrong perspective as St. Francis Law School proves.

  • While I think this is a good concept, it is impractical in reality. If we want to change the existing structures of law school, why wouldn’t we want to push for change in the existing law schools? Opening new law schools do not combat the wave of unqualified students entering law schools and ill equipped to pass the bar. Also, you are presupposing that people would want to work for a low pay job or public sector. Most big law firms are not going to consider hiring a junior associate from a no name school – regardless of whether they have practical skills taught during law school.

    We need to stop blaming the ABA and stop pointing fingers at everyone else, we made the conscious decision as adults to choose an ABA school and to take on the debt. We know going in what their curriculums would be. We should take responsibility to learn about the profession I want to be in before going to school. If I would mortgage my house for a better living environment, why wouldn’t I mortgage my career for a better life?? This doesn’t mean I want to take on a boat load of debt, but we make our own choices and we need to stop blaming others.

    • Allison, there are many factors. We’re not talking about unqualified applicants, either. We’re talking about qualified applicants NOT going to into law (despite their passion) because of the the price tag and lack of innovation within the existing structure which determines access to justice which is a stated mission of the ABA. Therefore, the ABA holds the key. Current law schools are not taking on the job effectively because they are trapped in their existing model which is laden with layers of faculty, administration, costs and the confines of the ABA mandates. It makes it financially impossible to accommodate. It’s simply too costly and quite frankly, the will is lackying, like trying to renovate a 17th century home into a contemporary 21st century home. Just tear it down and start over. They’re not prepared or willing to do so. So to achieve the goal of A2J they need more schools built from the ground up cost-effectively and the ABA needs to sanction these schools, not thwart them.

  • I think an online law degree has some merit for some folks but would not work for the overall market place. I am very familiar with the struggles of new grads with heavy debt and no jobs. Adding more competitors to the mix will not help, it will just continue the race to the bottom as far as salaries are concerned. Neither will having more lawyers help Access to Justice as the vast majority of people who don’t get access to justice will not necessarily sign on with a lawyer who has no experience and online law schools do not get you internships and do not have clinics. And by the way $10,000 per year for an online course is not cheap.If you had excellent grades in college chances are a traditional law school will not cost you much more after deducting scholarships. And a traditional law school offers moot court, law journals, subject-matter clubs and other student associations that not only help make the experience much more fulfilling but which also help build your referral network for when you want to start practicing law. While St Francis may be doing it right as you suggest, you know that if this catches on many less scrupulous online law schools without accreditation will emerge. The better answer is to make current law schools more transparent about their bar pass rates and hiring percentages; make sure they offer hands-on clinics that help produce law grads who can actually practice law once they get out; and make it mandatory (as NY currently does) that adds a mandatory pro bono component which not only trains law students to be lawyers but which also directly provides the Access to Justice you seek through this online model.

    • Oscar, there is no incentive for law schools to improve other than to bolster their admissions because admissions provide money. Think of the transportation industry. The goal of transportation is to get from point A to point B. Now let’s focus on cars. If there is only one model type of car, by default everyone who wants to drive cars has to buy that car. It may be expensive, stop the majority from driving thereby disadvantaging them in the work world and long range travel but there is no incentive to come up with a less expensive car because all it does is pull market share from the flagship model. Along comes a car that is cheaper, more fuel efficient and can get the masses to work. It may not have all the bells and whistles but it does it’s job, getting workers from point A to point B and affordably. Do we stop the competition from building this new car? I don’t think so. But by extension you are advocating we do so because in your opinion there are too many cars of this one type that are languishing on the car lot even though it has more features. That’s not a reason to stop other companies from building cars or preventing them from passing emissions tests. That’s what’s happening here.

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