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How Many Types of Law School Are There?

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Accredited law schools today are guided by a standard model. The elements of the model include high admission requirements (generally as measured by LSAT scores); operating structure as part of a university (ideally, a research university); a faculty significantly engaged in research and scholarship; a substantial endowment; and focus on preparing graduates to practice in national or international firms. Competition is largely on the basis of prestige. This model is not required by the accreditation standards. Rather, it is an unwritten set of characteristics widely viewed as the ideal for legal education.

Needless to say, not all law schools fit the standard model. Still, most aspire to it in greater or lesser degree. This is seen, for example, in the desire of most law schools to increase the LSAT profile of their students (no matter what the profile happens to be at the moment); significant investment in faculty research and scholarship; and deep concern with U.S. News rankings and other measures of status. It is also reflected in the mergers or affiliations between freestanding law schools and research universities that have taken place in the past ten or fifteen years.

Nearly a century ago, Alfred Reed, a researcher for the Carnegie Foundation, studied the legal education landscape with an eye toward recommendations for improvement. At that time, there was no standard model. Rather, as Reed concluded, there were four major types among the 141 law schools he identified. One -- the elite model -- is the ancestor of today's standard model. The other three differed in entrance requirements, length of program of education, nature of students, pedagogy, and types of practice for which students were being trained. Reed recommended formal recognition and support for three of the models (including the elite model). He also urged recognition of the existence of a differentiated bar, the various segments of which would be served by different types of law school.

Leading organizations in the bar and legal education rejected Reed's proposals. Instead, they promoted a single model for law schools--substantially, the elite model--which was to serve an undifferentiated legal profession. By the 1970's the standard model had become overwhelmingly dominant. It was the form to which new schools aspired and the form by which existing schools measured themselves.

The standard model has long been criticized, for example as not adequately preparing graduates for practice. In response to the criticisms it has been modified (for example, to increase the delivery of skills instruction) but in its main features has remained substantially unchanged.

Recent developments, however, put the model under enormous stress. The steady decline in applicants makes it difficult for many schools to adhere to high-LSAT based admission standards. The widespread criticism of tuition and cost structure makes it harder for schools to justify large investment in faculty research and scholarship. And the heightened focus on program outcomes -- in particular employment in the year after graduation -- challenges the appeal to status (or U.S. News ranking) as the key measure of institutional success.

The standard model is dominant, but in practice it is not the only one that exists today. There is at least one other type of law school: a school less focused on high LSAT in its admission standards; more committed to academic support; which serves the small firm and state and local government segment of the legal profession; which is judicious in its investment in research and scholarship; and, unlike standard model schools, does not (and cannot) significantly compete on the basis of prestige. Other types of school might, perhaps, be identified, depending on the purpose of the classification. The key point, however, is that the standard model is not the only one around.

What I suggest is that the various types of law school be formally recognized. This would not be a matter of accreditation: the ABA Standards, which are minimum requirements designed to ensure quality education, should remain uniform. Instead, recognition of law school types should be analogous to the Carnegie classification of colleges and universities, which respects and supports the diverse missions, modes of operation, and strategic choices of the many regionally accredited colleges and universities.

There are several potential benefits to formalizing a framework which includes, but is not limited to, the standard model. To begin, it would more accurately describe the legal education landscape and allow more useful information to be provided to students, researchers, law schools, and interested organizations. It would acknowledge the legitimacy of types other than the standard model and allow room for their development. In particular, by legitimizing alternatives to the standard model, with its costly emphasis on pursuit of prestige and faculty research, it would aid the development of lower-priced, but still high-value, forms of legal education.

Finally, it can improve many a law school's internal environment. For schools that decline to pursue the standard model, and for their faculty, it could reduce the anxiety that attends excessive concern with status. It would allow these schools and faculties to better focus on mission- and student-related goals: goals that are achievable, measurable, and more likely bring success and satisfaction.