Legal education and the profession itself appear on the brink of major change, thanks largely to the work of Kyle McEntee and Patrick Lynch, co-founders of Law School Transparency. LST aims to make law school more affordable and to enable prospective students to make better decisions by increasing their access to school data (employment rates after graduation, for instance). This week, we talked to Kyle (ABA Journal 2012 Legal Rebel) about the future of how we train lawyers in this country.
Let’s start at beginning–how did you think of this?
Patrick was a first-year student at Vanderbilt and I was an admitted student. I was deciding between Vanderbilt and Cornell and it was about: who’s going to put me in a job that I want? Vanderbilt provided the entire prospective student body with this employer spreadsheet–a list of where all their 2007 grads went to work. Patrick and I started asking why don’t other schools do this? We started researching and kind of uncovered a big problem. They were actively keeping it from people.
We spent the next year–my first in law school and his second–talking about this. Then in January 2009 we bought the domain name and I started working on the website. We incorporated in July and in August started working on a paper that ended up being 80 or 90 pages long. The paper let people know we had serious ideas and weren’t just complaining.
On top of that, the economy was crashing–which had nothing to do with us–but we were there at the right time. I think it was Rahm Emanuel who said never waste a good crisis. It’s a phrase we’ve been using internally for years.
As more people come to agree that legal education is too expensive and misleads prospective students about job prospects, there seem to be as many ideas about what to do. What do you make of the debate?
It’s a giant puzzle. These are extremely complex institutions that reside inside other complex institutions–university systems, then you have the ABA accreditation standards layer, the student loans layer, and the self-regulating legal profession layer. On top of all that, you have a society that depends on lawyers. You don’t want to change something without thinking about how doing so is going to affect the other areas. For example, as law schools bring in less money, they’re less of a cash cow for universities. This is not bad or good necessarily but needs to be considered.
Ultimately I think transparency is the grease that makes the wheels turn, if that’s the phrase.
Do you have a favorite model of what law school should look like?
I love the Modular Law School model. It facilitates getting nontraditional teachers, who we call adjuncts, into the classroom and shortens the course span–a bunch of short courses that are one or two credits each. You get the length of education down a lot and less expensive people into schools to teach practical skills. These are people who are practicing–not just lawyers but accountants, journalists…
The general idea is to allow schools to structure instruction around faculty that can more cheaply provide labor. I don’t think the quality would take much of a hit, if any. And quality can take a hit if it means taking the cost down 60-70%. That raises the question of who measures quality, which the profession has to take part in defining.
There are barriers to implementing this model, of course–[professional] accreditation standards and long-term contracts. It’s actually best suited for a new school that pops up. This is a 10 year challenge, not 3. We could see 25 new public schools pop up in next 10 years that do a great job and cut into the market of current schools, making it a challenge for them to survive, and I think that would be a good thing. Different doesn’t mean less quality. It just means different.
Washington State recently adopted a program that authorizes non-attorneys to provide legal assistance in certain areas of law, and it kind of reminds me what you’re describing–it creates an alternative course outside of the traditional institution rather than trying to reform what already exists. What do you think of it?
I think it’s really interesting. That’s adding to your army. It’s adding another kind of paralegal.
When will you be out of the job because there’s nothing to work on anymore?
I hope 5 years, 10 years? Part of the problem comes from our culture–few parents will say, I can’t believe you got into law school, that’s terrible! They all view it as this important thing that indicates you’re really smart. And it does indicate that you’ve had success and are probably smart, but we’re not going to have a fully informed market for a decade or two. It’s too embedded as a cultural idea.
But the other aspect we’re concerned with is affordalibiity. To say I have access to a legal education is missing something if access doesn’t account for affordability. If it costs me $200k, that’s not access. Yes, you can get in the door, but you’re graduating up to your neck in debt, and that’s going to impact your ability to have a family, have kids, have a retirement. I think that’ll change in 3 years. I think we’re going to see student loan reform that’s going to cut off the force of unlimited funding, and we’re working on that, because law schools have a blank check from the federal government to charge as much as they want. They’ve shown no fiscal responsibility or fiscal restraint, and they don’t deserve that blank check anymore.
Are you still doing this for free?
I don’t have a salary as of now. But the LST Board is about to vote on a salary for the first time. Otherwise it’ll have to be a hobby again. It’s been a full-time job for a few years now.
What project most excites you right now?
Something I can’t talk about, yet. But the other stuff is student loan reform and the LST Score Reports. US News [& World Report] has such terrible effect on students decision-making. The more we can cut into that, the better.
For more on how potential changes to legal education could affect litigants who need representation, check out Kat Aaron’s writing on people in court without lawyers.