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October 25, 2012


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Kevin Outterson

If the core problem is overcapacity, how will innovative teaching correct it?

Mike Madison

Within the scope of what I've posted above, you're right - it won't. The point about Steel is that the system of legal education needs to adopt modes of flexible thinking about just about all aspects of its program that we rarely see at the level of individual participants. Beyond that, there are other moving pieces that I haven't posted about. One is that current overcapacity exists relative to changing demand. Demand may be going down for traditional lawyers but going up for participants in the legal services industry, for example. (With Steel, the most dramatic changes took place in the economic model of the integrated producers, which exposed the fact not that they had excess capacity so much as it exposed the fact that their steel was too expensive; demand didn't change all that much.) I can't say that changing legal education will assure that all grads get full-time jobs (no one can say that, credibly), but changes can, in my view, improve the odds that all will grads will get full-time jobs. But not necessarily as lawyers. Two is that faculty should teach more than they do now, all things considered. More classes, and more students. I may add more in further comments.

Matthew Bruckner

I believe that what you are saying is correct. On my midterm in Administrative Law, I asked the students a question with both a legal component and a pragmatic component. Essentially the question required students to consider whether to advise a client to pursue a strategy of delay in order to help the client achieve its goals, even though this strategy would be unlikely to succeed on the legal merits. Students almost universally ignored the prompt to give pragmatic advice. Perhaps it was a badly worded question (although a few did what I had wanted), but in reviewing the exam, students seemed almost exasperated that I'd asked them a question that required them to give "non-legal" advice.

Curious to hear any thoughts on how to get students into a client-centered mindset while they are in the classroom.


Reading the first half or so of your post reminded me of this:
1 California Law Review Circuit 33.


The link is here

Bill Turnier

The real question is what law schools are assigned to play the role of the Bethlehem Steels?

Craig Boise

Another insightful and eloquent essay on what is urgently needed in legal education. Thank you!


I'm a recently graduated law student. In my experience, you have not even begun to grasp the differences "the ways that some legal academics discuss law school reform compared to the ways that students, lawyers, and recent graduates struggling to find actual jobs discuss it."

I read your post, then did a page search for the terms "debt," "loans," "cost," "size," "tuition." I wasn't shocked when I did not find a single instance of these words in your 2,000 word opus.

If there is a simple statement that can sum up the student and recent graduate position on law school reform it is this: "there are too many law students taking on too much debt to get law degrees." Every critique flows from this statement. Every proposed reform must be discussed with this as a central theme.

Curricular reform is a part of this discussion to the extent that a law school that must function with half as many students and on tuition of around $15,000 per year (or as a two-year program, or a 1 year program with a masters and 2 more years for the JD) will have to change its curriculum to deal with lower revenues. It is also important in order to consider how ABA accreditation standards will have to change to accommodate the new order. Otherwise, a discussion of curricular reform without even a mention of tuition reduction or cutting class size misses the point entirely.

If you want to figure out how to close the gap between academia and students/graduates on law school reform, you must start asking different questions. If you refuse to address the cost of law school or the oversupply of students, than you are not really engaging with the opposing position or do not understand what the opposing position is.

Big Cow

Let us be clear: in a rational system designed from the ground up today, there would be no law schools. None! What is the point of them? People get by basically without them in several advanced societies. The only reason we think they should exist is because they currently do.

If the goal of a legal education system is to produce prepared practicing attorneys, then the law school system should give way to an apprentice system. College or high school students interested in the law would take a half-dozen or so courses related to the law and then begin to practice in a firm as an apprentice or a government internship program upon graduation. Legal scholars would hold Ph.D.'s and do their work from various university departments. Teachers of the undergrad legal courses would be practitioners or retired practitioners.

What does law school add, besides unbelievable expense, to the legal practice enterprise? As someone who graduated from law school in the past few years and currently practices, I fail to see any (any!) value-add from my supposedly top-rate legal education, which lasted an unbelievable three(!)years and cost an unbelievable six-figure sum. If I had the choice I would not have paid even 10,000 and one year of my life for this education. It's not that I didn't learn anything. It's that I didn't learn anything *useful* - most of that "education" was really just intellectual entertainment, at enormous expense.

The answer to why law schools are necessary cannot be "well, you learn X and Y in law school that you wouldn't learn as an apprentice". The answer would have to be at least something like, "well, you learn X and Y in law school that you wouldn't learn as an apprentice, which is worth the tradeoff of whatever time and expense because [fill in blank]". Law schools exist only because of institutional inertia. It's time to push back.

Mike Madison

Anyone looking, like BoredJD, for parts of my thinking about legal education that did not make it into this post may find supplemental comments on my principal blog, Words like "cost" and "tuition" do show up; I plead not guilty to the charge of not getting how all of the relevant moving pieces fit together. This particular post is long enough, however.

A non-exhaustive catalog of relevant posts includes:

Innovation, Lawyers, and Legal Education

Public Legal Education

Too Many Law Schools? (from pre-crash 2008, no less!)

John Thompson

I'm a 2011 graduate of your school, and I had two questions for you.

Has a decision been made to withhold salary information as reported to NALP at the dean's level? Either way, has it been discussed among faculty or administrators that the University of Pittsburgh School of Law might publish this information in the minimally informative Employment Data section of its website?

Without any discounts, a Pennsylvania-domiciled graduate of the class of 2016 will face an estimated cost of $168,483. It's unfair to pretend that the University of Pittsburgh is alone in refusing to acknowledge the hilarious mismatch between the cost of legal education and its pecuniary benefit, but I promise that innovation will come much sooner if law schools become honest about how little the JD is worth to any law graduates who can't find a place in the law (and many of those who actually do).


In 2011, you asked what the vision of a tuition-driven public law school should be.

A public law school should provide a cheap legal education for students from their state, as it historically has done. There was nothing wrong with that vision. The problem is that public law schools abandoned that vision in favor of something else. Depending on who you ask, they chased the US News rankings dragon, used the federal student loan system to enrich the deans and tenured professors, or bowed to student pressure for fluffier classes, shinier buildings, and less challenging work.

What very few legal academics are willing to address is the feasibility of a return to that original premise- that a public law school guarantees a very cheap education for its students. Perhaps students should favor client centric pedagogical model. But as law professors, you need to be looking out for your students and for the profession as a whole. And what your students desperately need is cheap law schools and less competition for jobs, and what the profession desperately needs is for law schools to stop graduating twice as many entry-level lawyers as there are jobs.

What might be beneficial to students/graduates is a frank assessment of the reality of the situation. What is responsible for such a dramatic shift away from the traditional mission of a public law school? Can we go back to the ancient days of 2001, when tuition/fees at Pitt Law was less than half of what it is today? Have circumstances changed so much that a return to this historical norm is impossible, or is it merely undesirable for tenured faculty members?


We produce close to twice as many lawyers each year as there are legal jobs. And we saddle them with, at last count, around $125,000 in debt. Any discussion about reform that doesn't take these two facts into consideration isn't all that helpful.

Schools need to be closed, tuition needs to come down. Everything else is just window dressing.


Mike: "Anyone looking, like BoredJD, for parts of my thinking about legal education that did not make it into this post may find supplemental comments on my principal blog, Words like "cost" and "tuition" do show up; I plead not guilty to the charge of not getting how all of the relevant moving pieces fit together. This particular post is long enough, however."

Mike, cost is not 'supplemental', cost is core. If students are paying $150-250K for a law degree, and law schools are producing twice as many lawyers as needed, then a large number of students will both not have jobs in their profession, and be facing ruinous debt.

Mike Madison

This comment likely will not preempt others that complain that I did not post about issues of crucial interest to them. But my aim is to head a few of those off at the pass. And I will say it even though the original point of the post was not a general discussion of the specifics of law school reform.

Law school costs too much. It costs a shocking amount. It costs a shocking amount even after discounts are taken into account. It costs too much more or less regardless of one's views of whether society has the "right" amount of legal jobs (irony quotation marks there, because there are different views of what that number is). It costs too much relative to most assessments of the value that law school currently provides. It costs too much at local and regional levels, it costs too much at both private and public law schools, and it costs too much even (or perhaps especially) given the claim that tuition doesn't reflect the "real" cost of educating a given student.

There are, of course, many other moving pieces in the economies (plural) of the legal profession. The number of legal jobs might grow (that's extremely unlikely, if "legal jobs" means "full-time jobs practicing law in a traditional sense"). The value of a legal education might increase (that also strikes me as unlikely, but recognize that the character of a legal education is not fixed, in principle, just as the economic structure of the employment market is not fixed). Law schools did not cause these cost problems all by themselves, and they likely cannot solve them all by themselves. It is certainly true that no amount of pedagogical tinkering will solve the cost problem all by itself.

Right now, however, pedagogical tinkering is almost all that many law schools have going for them -- and the process of pedagogical tinkering is, in many respects, almost hopelessly constipated by law schools' and individual faculty members' historical commitments. The point of the original post -- muddied, perhaps, by the assumption that the Steel analogy could be read back, metaphorically, across the part about pedagogy -- was this: If law faculties can't handle needed pedagogical tinkering, then how will they manage bigger problems, like costs of attendance, and declining enrollments, and correcting the law school model to account for the fact that it is still grounded in 19th century and early 20th century thinking? Much of the time, I am pretty pessimistic about the odds that law schools and law faculties collectively will figure out a way forward. Thus the Steel analogy. Yet I am simultaneously if cautiously optimistic that some individual faculty members (including deans) can begin to make enough progress on their own that in broader ways the currently sclerotic system can be made more relevant, flexible, fluid, and affordable. Thus the exhortations.

Mike Madison

@Barry: I am pretty sure that you have mis-understood my comment. The phrase "supplemental comments" means "additional comments," or "comments in addition to my original comments, or to my original post." The phrase does not refer to costs, whether those costs might be supplemental or core or anything else.

Oh - and I found yet another earlier blog post of mine that talks about cost and legal education:

What Ails Lawyers and Law Schools, Pittsburgh Edition

and read the comments there ....

John Thompson

While I appreciate all of that, a client-focused legal education might best begin by schools meeting the same ethical standards of disclosure to which a client seeking counsel is entitled. If the University of Pittsburgh School of Law or any other knows something about the class of 2011's outcomes that a member of the class of 2015 might find material to his decision to continue his studies, it should be disclosed to all. I would think that might include salary information at the 25th, 50th and 75th percentiles, as well as the ratio of students reporting to those not reporting, but needless to say that information isn't published despite the school knowing it.

This post began with the question of what an ideal law school freed of the 3-year ABA requirement should look like. Whatever other elements one might incorporate, nobody would openly press for "fostering prospective and current students' ignorance of previous graduates' experience with employment outcomes." At least I hope nobody would.


Thanks for replying, Mike. The reason that I mentioned cost is that there's no getting around it. That's core.


I'd also like to thank you for taking the time to reply to us- very few law professors will acknowledge the perspectives of students or recent graduates on this issue. While I don't completely agree with the U.S. Steel analogy (I think a better analogy would be if U.S. steel decided to stop producing cheap structural grade steel and only focused on producing a lot of high-cost steel for space shuttles) I also don't believe you are using the pedagogy issue as a smokescreen to ignore the heady issues of cost and over enrollment.

That being said, I am a student who has encouraged others to take courses that are more "client-focused" although there were very few of those at my law school. I've given rave reviews to adjunct professors who use briefs or other research/writing assignments as the mode of evaluation instead of in-class open book issue spotters. I was also involved with a clinic at my school for three semesters and did several unpaid internships during the school year with non-profits and government organizations. So I'm a big fan of the experiential learning experience and wish it was "formalized" at more law schools.

However, after seeing a lot of my friends taking Law + Literature, Law + Religion classes, etc etc, and then going off to very prestigious positions in corporate or tax departments of large law firms, I'm also realistic to the possibility that top shelf legal employers are not particularly concerned with the content of the curriculum.

Mike Madison

The Steel analogy has its limits, obviously. (I capitalize the word "Steel" because it's a metonym, and because that's how people here refer to it: "Steel.") Spending too much time talking about where the analogy works and where it doesn't work risks missing the important issues. But because I live in Pittsburgh and have learned an enormous amount about what happened in the steel industry in the 1970s and early 1980s, I hope that you'll indulge a further reply on that point. The history is revealing.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, structural steel wasn't cheap, at least not the way that the big integrated producers were making it. To the contrary: the stuff was quite expensive. It had to be, because the cost structure of the steel industry was so big. The integrated producers had agreed to labor contracts that paid steelworkers extremely well. The huge rolling mills and coke plants required thousands and thousands of hands and backs to keep them operating. (Few people begrudge steelworkers the amount of money that they made; this was backbreaking work.) Management, of course, took a big cut of its own. Because there was, in effect, no industrial model that could produce structural steel the way that the integrated producers did, the producers could charge extremely profitable prices. Everyone made money. Then along came what Clay Christensen now calls "disruptive" innovation, in the form of mini-mills, which could produce competitive structural steel products for much, much less. That squeezed margins. The integrated producers responded by shifting production to ever more upmarket, high margin products. The cycle kept repeating, with the integrated producers continuing to move upmarket in order to protect their margins. Eventually, there was no place else to move. The markets for the high-end stuff got competitive, too. And that's when the whole thing fell apart.

To me, the question isn't whether the analogy works. The question is timing. Law schools are probably not looking at 1981 - the edge of the abyss. Are they looking at a metaphorical 1975? 1971? Earlier?

Other people who have tried to apply Christensen's analysis to legal education have wondered about the identity of the so-called "disruptive" innovators. (I have heard fellow law faculty say, in effect, that law schools don't need to worry about competition, because everyone who wants to go to law school has to go to law school. Yikes.) I don't think that it's so difficult to see what's happening: The marektplace disruption is happening downstream, in the world of law practice itself. Law schools have yet to fully appreciate its effects. But eventually, I think, they will.

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