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7 reasons to get rid of the law degree
Requiring a law degree for bar admission imposes unfair burdens on new lawyers and blocks innovation in legal education. Here's what we can do instead.
Hey there, legal sector participant! Do you feel that law school is too expensive? That law students graduate too heavily in debt and deeply stressed? That legal education seems impossible to reform? That the whole lawyer development and bar admission system in general is an enormous hot mess?
If so, you’re like thousands of others who’ve grown massively frustrated with the profession’s broken-down approach to developing new lawyers. But I’m here with some good news! There’s a simple and straightforward path to resolving these and many other problems with legal education and bar admission.
We start by getting rid of the law degree.
Now, hold on, let me be clear — I don’t mean kill the law degree itself. That would be crazy. (And, you know, wildly beyond my jurisdiction.) I think law degrees are terrific. I have one myself! I’m not hurrying back for a second one, mind you, but I enjoyed the degree I did get and it’s helped me make a living for the last 30 years, so count me as a fan.
No, I mean, let’s get rid of the law degree as a mandatory element of the lawyer licensing process. Law schools should continue to offer whatever sort of degree programs they like — but legal regulators and bar admission authorities should no longer require everybody who wants to be a lawyer to get one.
“Oh, come on,” you might say. (You might put it less politely than that.) “Do you seriously mean that lawyers don’t need to know the law? Or how to think like a lawyer? Or that the J. after a judge’s surname at the start of a court ruling isn’t their first initial? This is essential knowledge you learn in law school. We have to have a law degree to be a lawyer.”
I take a different view. A three-year law school degree is certainly one way to acquire the foundational knowledge of the law and the legal system that lawyers need. But it is surely not the only possible way. And it absolutely is not the least expensive, least exclusionary, and least harmful way to do it.
The most powerful, hard-to-shake assumptions are the ones we don’t even notice we’re making. Lawyers unconsciously assume that they must have a law degree in order to be a lawyer. But what they really mean is that they must demonstrably possess certain basic knowledge and conceptual skills in order to be licensed. These two things are not the same.
Although a law degree is one way to obtain the Legal Knowledge Starter Kit, it is not the only way. There is nothing magical about law school. What it teaches and inculcates in aspiring lawyers can be taught and inculcated elsewhere. The place doesn’t matter. The learning matters.
Once we’ve made that conceptual leap, then whole new worlds of possibility open up. What if we didn’t require people to have a law degree before they entered the bar admission process? What if we found other ways to ensure they had the knowledge and skills to begin the licensing process? What might change for the better?
Allow me to answer my own softball questions. Here are seven ways in which the legal education and lawyer licensing process would improve immensely if every aspiring lawyer weren’t required to get a law degree.
1. It would immediately lower socio-economic barriers to entry to the legal profession. The law degree is appallingly expensive: You need to invest seven years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in post-secondary education just to enter the bar admission process. That obstacle alone blocks countless people from even trying to become a lawyer — their socio-economic status makes a law degree, and therefore a legal career, impossible. Lower those barriers and be amazed at the wave of talented people surging in to join the profession.
2. It would massively reduce the debt load that cripples the early years of most lawyers’ careers. The average American law graduate leaves school $130,000 in debt from seven years of required education; in Canada, the figure is $71,000. (Remember, that means half of all graduates owe more than that.) The spectre of debt and the reality of repayments drive countless new lawyers away from socially valuable and personally rewarding work. Scale back that debt and you free thousands of lawyers to pursue better careers and expand access to justice.
3. It would remove artificial limits on the number of new lawyers. An overlooked impact of the law degree requirement is that law schools restrict the number of first-year seats available to applicants. By doing so, they create an artificial ceiling on the number of people who can eventually enter the licensure process — in effect, law schools reduce the lawyer population, which also degrades access to justice and reduces professional diversity. Decouple the enrolment-capped law degree from the lawyer licensing process and you push open the door to the legal profession even wider.
4. It would greatly alleviate the psychological distress of lawyers that begins in law school. We know that rates of anxiety and depression are extraordinarily high for law students, and that this carries over into the early years of a legal career. There is an “institutional brutality” to legal education that the law degree requirement forces every aspiring lawyer to endure. Add to that the entirely unnecessary and regressive competitive atmosphere law schools encourage. Enough: Give back to licensure candidates three healthy years of their lives.
5. It would force regulators to develop better licensing systems. Lazily relying on the law degree to teach people “how to think like a lawyer” has excused bar admission authorities from explicitly defining the knowledge and skill competencies needed for law licensure. Without the crutch of the law degree, legal regulators would finally have to identify, specify, and publicly declare the precise type and extent of professional knowledge required of new lawyers (as well as a valid knowledge assessment process — more on that shortly). And that, in turn, would create a vibrant new legal learning landscape:
6. It would incentivize the development of novel providers of legal knowledge. Removing the law degree mandate could result in a Cambrian explosion of people and organizations willing to teach candidates the (now publicly identified) knowledge required for licensure. Aspiring lawyers could turn to bar associations, CLE providers, paralegal programs, individual lawyers — and yes, absolutely, law schools, still the experts in this field, could unbundle their degree programs and offer individual courses on a standalone basis to anyone who wants them. Which also leads to:
7. It would oblige law schools to reconfigure their business models and curricula to attract candidates. Remember what I said earlier about the near-impossibility of educational reform? Well, consider this: No longer benefiting from a regulator-enforced monopoly on legal knowledge provision, law schools that wanted to continue drawing aspiring lawyers would have to compete for students on factors that matter to students. You know, like the cost of courses, the convenience of offerings, the quality of instruction, and the eventual licensure rates of graduates.
“Look, sure, that’s all well and good,” you might say at this point. “But the fact remains that whatever its flaws, the law degree requirement is the best method we have to ensure new lawyers have all the knowledge they need to be competent, and that’s such an important goal that we have to keep the requirement.”
I understand that argument. But here’s the problem with it: The law degree doesn’t even do that. It doesn’t provide aspiring lawyers with all the knowledge they need to get licensed.
We know this because every American state and most Canadian provinces require licensure candidates, even after obtaining the law degree, to pass an additional legal knowledge examination as part of their bar admission process. If the law degree alone is enough, why do we need bar exams? If the law degree gives you the knowledge you need to be a new lawyer, why do so many people fail the bar exam? And if the law degree alone isn’t enough, then why do we require it?
So, to sum up: The law degree requirement is oppressively expensive, imposes massive debt, limits lawyer supply, reduces lawyer diversity, induces psychological trauma, maintains antiquated licensure, and blocks educational innovation. Oh, and it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Apart from all that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
The law degree is neither the best way nor the only way that law licensure candidates can obtain the conceptual skills, subject knowledge, and professional awareness required of lawyers. In the next edition of this newsletter, I’ll offer a blueprint for how we can do better, suggesting an entirely new approach to the lawyer licensing process.
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