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Why Does Law School Cost So Much?

Why Does Law School Cost So Much?
By James Vescovi, Editor

The cost of a J.D. from a top tier school like Columbia, which can exceed $150,000, seems to have discouraged few people from applying. In 2004-05, the Law School fielded more than 8,000 applications; 378 students enrolled. On average, more than 97 percent of Columbia students have jobs by the time they graduate; the other two-plus percent are soon absorbed into the workforce. It seems clear that a degree from the Law School is still viewed as an investment with an excellent rate of return.

But that still doesn't answer the question: Why does law school cost so much more today than 20 years ago, even when inflation is taken into account? What exactly are students getting for their money that graduates of the Class of 1985 or '65 or '35 didn't get when they were in school? Has the law really changed that much?

The truth is that the practice of law - as well as its reach throughout the world - has been dramatically transformed in the past two decades. The Law School has responded in ways that will produce attorneys who can meet the needs of a world that is increasingly looking to law to secure trade, support human rights, and advance democracy.

Today's legal ferment has been fueled by many factors. Among the most important is the rise of globalization, which has injected an international component into a large swath of law study. It seems almost quaint to think that when Columbia Professor Francis Lieber introduced America's first lectures on international law in 1860, Dean Theodore Dwight fought to keep his material off final examinations, which he wanted limited to questions about municipal law. Today, three quarters of the Law School faculty have an element of international and comparative law in their research and teaching.

A second significant circumstance that has changed legal education is pedagogical. While law schools owe a great debt to the Socratic and case methods, current law practice has demanded new approaches to teaching.

Case law, which can be taught to large classes, helps develop keen analytical skills, but it divulges little about developing strategies, conferring with clients, discovery, or negotiating an agreement, situations students are today much more likely to encounter in practice.

While called by different names, the "situation method" of teaching is increasingly used in Columbia's classrooms. It is more professor/student intensive and, therefore, more expensive to implement. It places students in concrete situations like those found in the Law School's Deals course, in which student groups work with documents from an actual deal to learn how a business transaction is conducted. Group projects emulate the cooperation needed in the legal world, where many practitioners must work in concert on a single case.

Columbia faculty often bring an interdisciplinary component to the classroom. In the past few years, half of the School's new professors have arrived with either advanced degrees or substantial experience in areas outside law. Among them are economics, accounting, history, English, molecular biology, and sociology. These additional credentials illustrate that the boundaries between law, business, and other fields have been growing so faint, that Columbia and other schools are remaking themselves to be producers not simply of lawyers, but of men and women who can solve problems - problems that often straddle law and other areas of life.

The third highly important change in law schools involves technology. Traditionally, the study of law was not as cost-intensive as other disciplines such as medicine, which requires laboratories, equipment, and a supply of ever-expensive cadavers. However, the advent of computer technology, while a boon for the legal profession, has made the study of law a more expensive endeavor.

The Law School first responded to the digital age in 1995 with the renovation of Jerome L. Greene Hall, which was refitted to handle the latest technological advances. In subsequent years, classrooms in Greene and in the newly built William C. Warren Hall and William and June Warren Hall were fitted with tools that allow faculty to utilize Internet resources and to co-teach with colleagues across the world in real time. In all, the Law School spent $80 million on the capital improvements.

So long, Kingsfield

The renovation of Greene Hall also took into account the social changes taking place in legal education. Clearly, the days of Paper Chase professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., are over. Greene's student lounge, cafe, and open work spaces were built to facilitate the important interaction that takes place among students as they study and learn the law together. A lounge with comfortable chairs and large tables for books and laptops is much more conducive to group study than gathering in a cramped apartment or a vacant classroom. These accommodating spaces also increase interaction among professors and students that was unknown and unexpected in earlier eras.

Other changes include the construction of more seminar rooms for the growing numbers of specialized classes, as well as more spaces for the growing number of student groups and journals. Faculty/assistant areas were redesigned to reflect the increasing administrative responsibilities of professors, who are directing centers of law, running conferences and panels, and publishing more frequently.

The technological renaissance also necessitated more library resources. Like law firms, law schools have taken full advantage of the benefits and efficiencies of technology, though growing numbers of highly useful databases are expensive. The resources needed in first-rate legal libraries are a far cry from a century ago, when the ABA established a minimum library accreditation standard of 5,000 books. Today, the nation's ABA-approved law schools hold 80 million books and other documents (roughly, 450,000 per school).


Greene Hall's open spaces facilitate the important interaction among students as they study and learn the law together

Practical training or legal scholarship?

Since its earliest days, the goal of American legal education has been the subject of debate: Are law schools merely trade schools whose faculty have marching orders to teach the skills of a practicing attorney, such as how to write briefs, make arguments, or file papers? Or are law schools centers of scholarship whose faculty are charged with producing ideas to improve the law? Likewise, there have been debates about the methodology that should be used to understand and teach the law. This debate has led to periodic flare-ups, with one of the most heated occurring at Columbia Law School in the 1920s. A small group of legal realists pushed for an interdisciplinary approach to the law, believing the subject was best studied when a variety of societal factors was taken into account, while the majority of the faculty focused more on traditional doctrinal analysis. The realists, among them Assistant Professor William O. Douglas '25, lost and decamped for other schools after a brief, intense battle.

Who has won these debates in legal education? At Columbia, the answer is everyone.

The faculty has experts in a broad range of methodologies from doctrinal analysis to law and economics to critical theory. Also, rigorous attention is paid to teaching as well as scholarship.

The Law School now has nine clinics that bring students to immigration courts, small businesses, and the wetlands of New Jersey. The most recent addition is the new Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, which will provide focused assistance on cases and legislation in cooperation with law firms and other organizations. In these faculty-intensive offerings, students confront issues in cases brought to them by real clients, thereby learning skills directly transferable to practice. Clinics are always fully subscribed, and there is constant demand for new ones.

The effect of clinical experience can be illustrated in many ways. Among them is the Katrina Law Student Coalition. Organized by Columbians and representatives from other schools, student members traveled to the Gulf Coast to aid people affected by Hurricane Katrina during winter and spring break. They put their skills to work with groups such as the Gulfport Affordable Housing Inventory and the Rebuilding LA Coalition. Columbia students also put their skills to work in the 2006 Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, winning first place out of a field of 550 teams.

A number of the Law School's most innovative courses combine skills training with traditional teaching. For example, Collapse & Recovery: The New Face of Bankruptcy invites leading practitioners to class to discuss fresh cases and issues, while Black Letter Law/White Collar Crime focuses on indictments and SEC complaints instead of judicial decisions. The seminar Theory & Practice of Workplace Equity also bridges two worlds. It addresses theoretical interdisciplinary questions regarding discrimination and, on a real-world level, requires students to do case studies on company practices that promote inclusive work places.

Columbia complements its skills-related training with a reputation for excellent research and scholarship. Novel approaches to problems, be they the fight against terrorism or international corporate governance, are covered in journal articles by Law School faculty, whose productivity and academic influence are high. The articles often elicit invitations to testify before government bodies and to speak at conferences attended by practitioners, government officials, and judges, moving valuable ideas from the academy to the profession. Columbia professors also communicate directly to the world at large; they comprise the second most quoted law school faculty in the general media in the nation.


Small, innovative classes, such as Black Letter Law/White Collar Crime, taught by Professor John Coffee (right) and Federal Judge Jed Rakoff, help develop skills lawyers need today: developing strategies, conferring with clients, discovery, and negotiating agreements.

The rise of law centers

Maintaining a reputation as a center for scholarship does not come without a price. As society has turned increasingly to the law to solve problems, Columbia has increased its faculty in new and growing areas of legal studies. In recent years, for example, the School has hired more than one professor in each of the following areas: business law, international law, intellectual property, law and sexuality, and legal history. Plans are afoot to increase the number of faculty and faculty research funds so that Columbia can maintain its reputation as a world-leading capital of scholarship.

Rapid changes in the law have also sparked the creation of Centers, Institutes, and Programs that complement teaching and scholarship. The faculty and staff who run centers manage student exchanges, organize colloquia, host visiting scholars, and see to the publication of books and papers. Columbia's endeavors focus on crime, law and economics, and global legal problems. Its three centers of Asian legal study address issues connected to the continent's rapid growth. At a law school as active as Columbia, centers are indispensable.

The Law School has expanded its international influence to non-Western and developing nations reaching out for laws to regulate their rapid pace of change. For example, in Japan, which has only 22,000 attorneys compared to one million in the United States, 74 new law schools have opened in the past half decade. Some law schools in South Korea are beginning to transform their system of legal education to the American model, and China is now the site of huge corporate mergers and other business activity.

These changes have spurred a wealth of activities, including the purchase of new technologies and databases needed to interact with these changing societies and growing bodies of law. The changes afoot in Europe, such as the democratization of the East and the strengthening alliance of the European Community states, led to the creation of the Center for European Legal Studies, as well as courses such as Law & Capitalism: A Comparative Approach, whose students use case studies to examine the connection between a nation's legal system and its economic institutions.


Rapid change has sparked the creation of Centers, which manage student exchanges, host visiting scholars, and organize conferences, such as this one held in Japan.

No economies of scale

The economic expansion in the Third World has been a boon to American businesses. Sneaker manufacturers can lower production costs by having their product made in Vietnam or Thailand, and U.S. software companies can out-source their 800-assistance lines to India.

Law schools and other academic institutions, however, do not have the advantage of the same workplace efficiencies. A first-rate legal education requires that professors and students have face-to-face interaction. An impromptu chat between a student and professor who cross paths at Lenfest café can lead to a substantive discussion. Conversations among students in the Drapkin Lounge are an irreplaceable learning tool. These interactions would not take place if students and faculty were spread throughout the world in a web of long-distance learning.

The costs of maintaining a law school in New York are far greater than at other schools, especially considering the rising real estate costs seen during the city's renaissance - though the city's huge international community provides inestimable benefits. A good deal of knowledge and experience also would be lost without a New York locale, which faculty use to invite U.S. prosecutors, corporate deal-makers, diplomats, and others to the classroom.

Budgets at law schools - indeed, everywhere in the academy - have also increased because institutions have had to adapt to a sweeping change in American society: the increasing power of the consumer. Fifty years ago, a law school dean, an associate dean, and a handful of administrative assistants handled admissions, alumni relations, and whatever little financial aid was available. Job placement was done less formally and thoroughly.

In the past few decades, expectations of what law schools should offer their students have risen dramatically - as has the number of applications. To handle these increases, as well as the fierce competition for students engendered by the battle over school reputations, administration has grown. Admissions offices send staffers on the road promoting the school to undergraduates. Student services offices have been created to address the more personal needs of students in an increasingly complex world. Columbia's Office of Career Services organizes daylong interview sessions for 2Ls and 3Ls and also provides many forms of job counseling.

To fund these and other costs, development and alumni relations offices have grown, and officers fan out to reacquaint and re-involve alumni with their school as a way to inspire graduate support. This increase is reflected in the renovation and expansion of libraries, residence halls, and classrooms. Between 1996-2005, the average square footage of an ABA-approved law school grew by nearly 18 percent.

The increasing variety of law curriculum has been accompanied by the growing diversity of the student body. The entrance of women and minority matriculates to law schools, which began as a trickle in the early 1970s, has continued unabated. The Law School is also attracting more students who come from foreign countries to earn a J.D. The figure is currently at 11 percent.
This democratization of the student body, as well as the enrichment of law study, has given rise to the demand for more financial aid, which also weighs on law school budgets. The rising cost of tuition has also sparked the creation of loan repayment assistance programs and more student scholarships. Thankfully, salaries in private practice have increased. Those companies and individuals recognize the value of law training and the high caliber of a CLS graduate.

Law is the intermediary

Much of the world's business no longer involves buying fruit from a local farmer and fabric from a merchant down the lane. Americans are eating lamb imported from New Zealand, while the Japanese are buying licensing rights to Walt Disney characters. International courts in The Hague are trying military leaders of Serbia. We are buying homes from strangers and investing our savings in industries we know little about. When we leave companies, we are signing non-compete clauses.
These exchanges require intermediaries who will make sure that none are cheated and that justice is done. In a global community of widely different traditions, cultures, and religions, people need a go-between they can trust. In this polyglot world, that intermediary can only be law.

Training lawyers is not solely about law anymore. Certainly it means providing people with legal skills that have been taught for generations, but it also requires exposure to skills that match the broad roles lawyers must play today. A legal education also demands that students be exposed to the ideas and concepts that will influence the world in the years to come, as well as be knowledgeable about the technologies introduced to law practice on a constant basis. In short, Columbia is a training ground for people who have important contributions to make to the world, and this is why legal education is more expensive - and worthwhile - than ever before.