The Ethics and Economics of American Legal Education Today

11 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2008 Last revised: 18 Jun 2020

Date Written: July 16, 2008


Is American legal education economically viable and socially defensible? Can most US law schools expect to go from strength to strength? Or is university legal education, especially on non-elite campuses, more like the American motor industry before the fall? Are institutional complacency and greed liable to kill off a good thing?

Legal education, like higher education generally in the United States, has become sharply more expensive in the past three decades. Tuition can approach or even exceed $40,000 per year; many law students take on substantial loans; and it is common to graduate with debt of $100,000 and more.

While law school tuition has risen at twice the rate of inflation and more in recent decades, senior faculty teach less than ever - three courses a year is the norm at many law schools - and senior faculty salaries have risen far ahead of the inflation rate.

High tuition and light teaching loads are, in part, a subsidy for faculty scholarship. There is more and better faculty scholarship than there used to be, not only at elite schools but also at law schools that would have fielded few or no good scholars a generation or two ago. In fact, under the protection of their collective monopoly, American law schools have prospered academically and intellectually as well as materially in recent times. On the other hand the scholarship - and classroom teaching - is heavily tilted to the political left. Students and their families, and taxpayers who pay for public subsidies, might well feel that they are getting only one side of the story for their money.

Today's model of legal education - now the norm at most US law schools - might continue to be viable economically at elite law schools. The question is whether it can persist at middle and lesser-ranked law schools, and whether it should. There are apt to be pressures for substantial reform of American legal education in the foreseeable future - whether through legislation, antitrust litigation, or simply by market forces. Depending on the direction that reform might take, the benefits as well as the costs of today's academic model might be lost. It would not be the first time that monopoly or greed have led to a breakdown and to the development of new and at least in some ways worse institutions.

Keywords: law schools, tuition, salaries, teaching loads, political bias, educational reform

JEL Classification: K0, K10

Suggested Citation

Schwarzschild, Maimon, The Ethics and Economics of American Legal Education Today (July 16, 2008). 17 Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues 3 (2008), Available at SSRN:

Maimon Schwarzschild (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-2343 (Phone)
619-260-4791 (Fax)

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