John McGinnis, who teaches law at Northwestern, and Russell Mangas, a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis, have published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that states should allow people to take the bar after majoring in law in college and then serving in one-year post-graduate apprenticeships. Given that I made the same proposal last month I naturally agree with the gist of their argument.
There are a bunch of practical problems with this approach, including:
(a) State bars have little incentive to allow the even greater competition among providers of legal services which this kind of approach would produce. This means such a reform would have to come from the legislature (which itself is going to have a lot of lawyers in it).
(b) Questions of inter-generational fairness. Under this approach a new generation of aspiring attorneys will end up paying perhaps a quarter the average tuition that the previous generation did in order to become eligible to pass the bar. This means new lawyers will have much lower entry costs and therefore a significant competitive advantage over lawyers who graduated just a few years earlier.
(c) It will become even harder to make a living practicing law, although the cost of entry will be much lower. Since the market for lawyers is already so heavily saturated this tradeoff will be worth it for new lawyers, but again this raises issues of comparative fairness.
(d) Legal academia will fight against this tooth and nail, for obvious reasons.
(e) I'm skeptical of the authors' claim that this approach will lead to any significant decrease in the cost of legal services, given that the market is already saturated, and that not that long ago many people went to law school while paying little more than the opportunity cost of doing so (when I started teaching at CU in the early 1990s resident tuition was about $3000 per year, i.e., around $5000 per year in current dollars).
Still this sort of proposal is valuable both as a potential long-term model for radically restructuring legal education, and for the contribution it makes to the short-term goal of putting more pressure on law schools to stop behaving in the flagrantly irresponsible way they've behaved over the past generation.
Speaking of which, I had a 1L ask me for advice yesterday. He went to a prestigious private school and had a classically unmarketable humanities/social science major, while incurring $35K in educational debt. He's a K-JD kid in his early 20s who doesn't seem to have done anything except go to school. He wants to do public interest/government law (Update: In regard to how practical this desire might be see this comment. And this one. And this one.) He has no interest at this point in working for a law firm. He got middling grades his first semester. He's got no scholarship money or help from his family, so if he stays the course he's going to have around $200K in educational debt by the time he's done ($110K or so for tuition -- eight years ago he would have paid $33K total in tuition -- $40K for living expenses, the undergrad debt, plus accrued interest). This debt will have an average interest rate of around 7.3% so he'll be looking at $15K a year in interest payments. CU's LRAP program is very small -- the current income from it will cover the debt payments of perhaps three people in this kid's eventual situation if he stays the course. Interestingly he had never heard of IBR.
What am I, or any other member of the faculty, supposed to tell law students in these kinds of (extremely commonplace) circumstances when they ask us for guidance? I would love to hear the opinions of other legal academics on this precise point (as well as those of other people of course).