The prevailing way of training lawyers—three years of postgraduate study, using Socratic techniques and the case method—has a relatively recent pedigree. Well into the nineteenth century, most American lawyers learned their craft as Abraham Lincoln did, studying the law as de facto apprentices under the tutelage of practicing lawyers. Remnants of this tradition survived into the twentieth century. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who also served as solicitor general, attorney general, and chief American prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials, was one of the most accomplished lawyers of his era. But Jackson only attended law school for one year. He passed the bar in 1913 after studying under a lawyer—his uncle—in upstate New York.
Today, the legal realm would greet Jackson’s education with disdain. Elite law schools, staffed with highly paid faculty lacking any meaningful experience in the profession, equate the practical model with a trade apprenticeship—just a lengthy bar-review course. But why are bar-review courses even necessary for students who just finished a three-year course of study in the law? Isn’t learning about the practice of law the raison d’être of legal education? The open secret is that elite law schools don’t see their mission as teaching the nuts and bolts of regular legal work. Tenured faculty leave the real training to the lesser caste of clinical instructors and adjuncts, postgraduation cram courses, and on-the-job training by law firms.
Professors at the nation’s leading law schools enjoy a light teaching load, allowing plenty of time for conducting research and writing scholarly articles for student-edited law reviews. Not surprisingly, legal scholarship is largely irrelevant to the needs of legal consumers like clients and practitioners. The current model of high and rising tuition, mounting student debt loads, poor skills training, uneven (and uncertain) job placement, and an increasingly politicized professoriate thus perpetuates itself.
Many law school graduates struggle to find suitable employment, even as some portions of the country face a shortage of lawyers. Despite paying lip service to the need for reform, most law schools maintain the status quo. Potential “disruptors,” such as the independent, Catholic-oriented Ave Maria School of Law, and a small number of for-profit schools, have failed to produce superior results, such as lower tuition or higher bar-pass rates. Overall, legal education is doing a poor job, and the American Bar Association’s gatekeeping accreditation requirements hamper much-needed reforms.
On a recent trip to Knoxville, I discovered an unusual school that offers a sharp contrast to the prevailing model—Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law. What initially caught my attention was LMU’s prominent downtown location, in the historic Old City Hall, near the campus of the University of Tennessee, home to the state’s venerable flagship law school. I assumed an “upstart” school would lack establishment-based respectability, but I learned otherwise.
Founded in 2009, the Duncan School of Law is led by former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade. LMU’s law school attracts nontraditional students, emphasizes skills-based instruction, and seeks to train lawyers who will serve the legal needs of ordinary people in rural areas of the state, primarily as solo practitioners or attorneys working at small firms. Starting with the admissions process, LMU focuses on preparing students throughout their studies to pass the bar exam and become functioning lawyers.
Now fully accredited by the American Bar Association, LMU’s law school has a relatively small enrollment (around 265 students), with both full-time and part-time study. By keeping enrollment low and emphasizing practical learning, LMU has delivered bar-passage rates for its graduates at or above the statewide average for other ABA-approved law schools (unlike many other “lower-tier” schools elsewhere) and a claimed employment rate of 96 percent for the class of 2015.
LMU applies rigorous instruction in skills essential to practicing law. The law school, in just one example, requires three semesters of legal research and writing (instead of the customary two), offers a core curriculum composed mostly of requisite courses, and requires six credits of experiential learning. Class attendance is mandatory. Though LMU does not yet have a clinical program, its students work closely with Legal Aid of East Tennessee and other externship opportunities.
Moreover, though LMU is a private institution, tuition is a reasonable $36,840 per year for full-time students. For a recent entering class, moreover, 97 percent of matriculants received some type of a scholarship or grant. By contrast, Vanderbilt University Law School’s tuition is $59,550 per year, and the University of Tennessee’s nonresident tuition is $38,312 per year. In 2016, Prelaw Magazine named LMU a “Best Value Law School.” LMU keeps its costs down with a small faculty, all of whom teach multiple courses each semester, sometimes in widely different subjects, such as constitutional law and wills. LMU also relies on adjunct faculty—drawn from Knoxville law firms—to teach specialized courses like bankruptcy.
LMU’s law school may not have the reputation of its Tennessee counterparts (which include the nationally ranked Vanderbilt), or a superior model to more typical schools. But LMU demonstrates how an alternative approach can deliver impressive results at a considerably lower cost. The practice of law mainly consists of helping ordinary people solve their legal problems, such as family-law disputes, defending criminal charges, or creating a will. Lawyering is in many respects a trade—like being a plumber, electrician, mechanic, or welder. LMU’s law school acknowledges this reality.
In fact, law schools should function as trade schools, and focus more on practical training. The Ivory Tower ethos so common in academia often loses sight of the essential mission of legal education. Elite law schools could learn some useful lessons from LMU.