The New Republic recently featured a mini-symposium on "how to fix law school." However, I wonder if the thing should be repaired at all, as opposed to being consigned to the junkyard. Why not consider the benefits of eliminating almost all non T13 law schools, and returning to some version of the apprenticeship model of legal education, appropriately modified and updated for these more complicated times? The apprenticeship model produced Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow, and Justice Robert Jackson, so maybe there are few things to learn from the 19th/early 20th centuries.
The model would work something like this: Following a bar-review-like crash course to teach core doctrine fast, law students would undergo a two year long structured series of apprenticeships and clinics to train them to try a case, handle an appeal, and represent clients in a couple of practice areas of their choice. The supervisors would be successful local practitioners and, maybe, public sector agencies. Not six-figure-salaried pedagogues who haven't seen the inside of a courtroom in many years, if ever.
There would be no more hide-the-ball classroom bullying sessions, the core of the prevailing method of legal education. This method sometimes goes by the name "Socratic," but is really just the practice of self-interested law professors, who are either lazy or do not know much about legal practice, of stretching out a few months worth of doctrine to fill three long years, thereby draining their students of three years of tuition.
The costs of an apprenticeship education would be considerably less than the current black hole of law school debt. There would be no need for 90 million dollar "state of the art" School of Law buildings, no need for $500,000+/yr. law school deans, and no need for faculties filled with dozens of six-figure-salaried academics who, over and above their salaries and benefits and summer research stipends, expect to be subsidized to travel to luxury resorts in Florida and Hawaii for, uh, academic conferences. As well, there would be no need to hire a bunch of do-nothing career services employees. Moreover, for apprenticeship supervisors, tuition would merely be a supplement to their salaries or income, not the whole thing.
Because lawyers should, indeed, have highly developed critical thinking and writing skills, a prerequisite for admission to a law apprenticeship program could be a year or more of grad school, plus excellent grades in college, plus a high score on the LSAT or some other standardized test or tests designed to measure critical thinking skills.
The practicing bar, which would accredit apprenticeship programs, and monitor them for quality, would be unlikely to follow the example of law schools, and allow training programs to flood the market. Practitioners have an interest in keeping the number of bar admissions down, whereas law schools have little stake in the legal profession, and must extract enormous sums of money, mostly from students, just to meet expenses.
Students would complete their apprenticeship program with the confidence, experience, and local contacts to practice law and make money, even if, sometimes, not enough to sustain an entire legal career. And, being practice-ready and far less indebted, recent grads would be able to take many more low bono cases, thereby actually advancing justice by meeting the unmet legal services needs of the working poor. Under the current system, by contrast, newly minted JDs are rarely practice-ready, and their hideously expensive legal educations are frequently a total loss, especially as document review dries up.
Futhermore, I believe that nonlaw white collar employers would not despise a practical legal education, as they currently despise JDs. To many such employers, a JD represents a bundle of elite expectations, rather than a bundle of actual skills. It is a degree that screams: entitled asshole. By contrast, an apprenticeship law degree/license would signify skills rather than entitlement. Nobody despises skills even if they are not immediately useable.
What about legal scholarship? Much of that could be done over on the undergrad campus, in philosophy, history, sociology, poli-sci, or cultural studies departments, which is where many of the "Law and __" or "Critical-This-or-That-Theory" law professors belong. (Though, unfortunately, many such law school professors are just overpaid dilettantes, and would find the transition to scholarly rigor and peer review to be a trying experience). The best of the "Law and __" professors would land in the T13 law schools, which would continue to provide havens for scholars and valuable credentials for well-bred overachievers. There should also be foundations to subsidize select practicing lawyers of a scholarly bent to take one or two year leaves of absence from their jobs in order to write academic-style articles.
There are a handful of law professor critics who have truly honored their moral obligations to their students (and who are far braver and smarter than I am). I would hate to see these professors hurt in any way by the collapse of the system, and so I hope they succeed in reforming the current system from within somehow. I don't think that is possible anymore, and so my proposed solution is Ecrasez l'infame.