02/21/2013 01:57 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Reinventing Legal Education: The Costs of Change

Law schools have changed. I know, I know: not fast enough. Law school deans are taking a beating in the popular culture. We're alleged to be con artists who, leading some sort of bizarre crew of hyper-theoretical professors, are enticing consumers to purchase a worthless product that ruins their lives.

Law schools must continue to change. Our technology-based culture has proven again and again and again that the only true constant is change. At the same time that Twitter, founded seven years ago, set up its headquarters a few blocks from our campus, the United States Postal Service, which predates the United States, announced it could no longer sustain Saturday service as a business proposition.

I would like to take a moment to talk about what is different now compared to a couple of generations ago. The senior leaders of the bench and the bar were just graduating from law school. They emerged in the era circa 1973 of the anxiety of "stagflation," the economic combination of stagnation and inflation, and the drama of the Watergate investigation.

A firm with 50 lawyers back then would have been a leading institution; partners did not move over to a rival; and compensation was a private matter and much more modest. Of course, fancy firms had only just ceased to be identifiable as Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish; the only people of color working there probably cleaned the offices; and if there was a single woman attorney she likely did trusts and estates.

I'd also like to lay out the budgetary effects of change in the academy -- and the tuition consequences. As we face demands for revolution, while implementing reform, it would be useful to consider the costs. (I won't even mention that back then public schools received the bulk of their budget from public sources.)

The greatest change has been the embrace of clinical legal education. By "greatest," I mean the most sizable and the most worthwhile. Similar to the model of clinical medical education, clinical legal education is the best means by which we prepare students for practice. It has been so successful we as a profession might well be on the cusp of requiring it for every graduate. No med student graduates without examining a few actual patients.

The expense of clinical legal education can be calculated in straightforward terms. A professor in a doctrinal class, such as the first-year required curriculum of civil procedure, criminal law, property, contracts, and torts, can lecture to a hundred students at once. That is not ideal, but it is not uncommon. A professor in a clinical class, supervising student attorneys who are representing real people in real cases, cannot train more than ten students at once. That's if she cares about her responsibilities both as a teacher and a lawyer.

It happens that the "podium" professor as they are called likely makes more money than her clinical counterpart, though not by much. Thus the difference is more than an order of magnitude. Once you count the overhead required for an actual legal office, the clinical course requires ten times as much money. There are new technological advances that will alleviate some of that.

Pause for a moment on this math. If we want clinical legal education, we will need to spend much more to provide it. As curmudgeons tell the young, this is called a choice.

Likewise with the student experience. The expectations for legal education in general have become so much higher. Traditionally there wasn't even lip service paid to "the student experience." Until recently, legal education has been miserable -- ritualistically, proudly so.

My predecessors really did say at orientation, "Look to your right, look to your left. One of you won't be here next year." Some of them said "two of you," and then they ensured it came true. Whether they flunked out or dropped out, they were not missed.

I say when I meet the assembled matriculants, "Look to your right, look to your left. These are your future colleagues and clients, the judges before whom you will appear, and, for some of you, your future spouse or partner." They want us to create a genuine sense of community; we want to do that too, not solely for competitive advantage.

None of this makes me better than those before me. We belong to different periods in history.

Over time, we have added dozens, literally dozens, of professionals for student services that would have been scoffed at.

Law school stressing you out? Back in the day, the response would have been, "Well, perhaps law isn't for you." Need a job? Then, you scanned a bulletin board with some index cards tacked onto it advertising openings. Deaf? No interpreter unless you paid yourself.

Today, we have counselors for students and numerous organizations they form for everything from patent law to running, advisors on careers and placement, specialists for disability accommodations, medical personnel for serious issues, and public safety officers. Many of them hold a law degree themselves.

Most recently, we added an office to compile data and address accreditation requirements. Everyone wants us to be transparent, while lowering our costs. Those goals, as is true of many human desires we feel simultaneously, are not highly compatible. Like elegant product design, transparency turns out to be pricey. Specifically it requires that we build an apparatus to find the information, organize it, verify it, submit it, and then track the trends that are revealed.

The other day, I spent the lunch hour in our cafe to chat with students. A nice fellow, a first-year student, came by to meet me. The only subject he wished to bring up was ice cream. He wanted to know if the cafe could install a machine as he recalled from his undergraduate days elsewhere, so he could enjoy soft-serve ice cream.

As I explained to him, I have nothing against ice cream. If we can make a profit as the vendor, then we would be delighted to offer ice cream. But if we cannot do so, then our strategic plan does not call for ice cream.

Our strategic plan is about high-quality legal education. The definition of every aspect of that phrase, "high-quality," "legal," and "education" is dynamic, not the same as it was two generations ago. Improvements to each facet require we make expenditures. That forces us to ponder what it is exactly as a society based on the rule of law we want to pay for our principles.