Crises, crisis rhetoric, and competition in legal education: a sociological perspective on the (latest) crisis of the legal profession and legal education.

AuthorGarth, Bryant G.
PositionSymposium on Legal Education


The very strong position of law in the United States is the starting point for understanding the proliferation of crisis rhetoric. The sociology of law teaches: (1) if lawyers occupy central positions in the state and the economy, there will be competitors who will seek to challenge that position; (2) lawyers (and legal scholars as a subset of that group) build their careers and reputations in part by forming alliances with dissident groups and potential competitors and seeking to speak on behalf of them; and (3) lawyers tend to maintain rather than threaten professional hierarchies. Lawyers, to put it another way, seek to be on both sides of every issue, and the ability to appear on both sides is a measure of professional strength. Further, professional hierarchies shape the arguments that they make. Lawyers rarely seek to topple the structures that sustain them.

The lawyer or law professor today who denounces the law degree and the current structure of legal education typically aims mainly at less prestigious law schools and law graduates. Less prestigious, depending on the position of the author, might include only schools way down in the U.S. News ranking, or it might simply be schools that the author feels are enough below the one occupied by the author to safely be criticized. This critical position attracts publicity and professional recognition--all the more so because it comes from a lawyer--a person of some status. (1) A time of economic depression or quasi-depression makes the claim gain attention and credibility--especially from those who resent the strong position of lawyers in American life. The basic theme of this article is that we should not forget that it is the strong position of law and lawyers that produces and reproduces this process--without in fact dislodging law from its position of strength. It is hard to see lawyers losing when the argument about lawyers is largely controlled by lawyers.

This Article will begin by examining the rhetoric produced around the time of the Great Depression, the closest analog to the current situation. The doomsday arguments will seem familiar today--too many lawyers, a stagnant legal economy, and a sense that the trouble for the profession comes especially to the graduates of the schools that traditionally have provided access to immigrants, minorities, and other relatively disadvantaged groups. After highlighting those arguments, a number of which came from prestigious law school deans, I will cite the literature that Legal Realists such as Lloyd Garrison and Karl Llewellyn eventually produced to counter the crisis rhetoric. Few now remember the fervor of the debates at the time.

The next Part will examine the rhetoric of crisis today. We see the same rhetoric of a decline in demand, caused in part by competitors cutting into traditional business. Once again, economic recession brings out the rhetoric of too many lawyers and not enough demand for their services. Of course, the situation today is not precisely the same as in the 1930s. The schools that provided access to minorities and immigrants were quite inexpensive in the Depression era. Now, nearly all law schools have become quite costly, including those that are more likely to serve those from lower socio-economic strata. It is also no longer legitimate to claim that immigrants, or any relatively marginal social group, are not up to the professional standards necessary to become lawyers. Yet, I will maintain, the situation today has more in common than not with the Depression era. Not only is much of the rhetoric the same, but also, as in the 1930s, the critics today promote a position that would harden professional hierarchies and reduce access to the advantages of a legal education and law degree.

Those producing the current generation of jeremiads have become famous in the legal profession, making very similar arguments to what was stated in the Depression era. They have gained considerable attention in the popular media as well--delighting those who resent the lawyers' position in the United States. They are now quoted on issues outside of legal education. They have been very successful from an entrepreneurial point of view. They have made visible and articulated an argument that was not well-represented in the literature.

Unfortunately, the recipes for reform that these advocates posit have all too much in common with the recipes from the 1930s. The high tuition is stated as a reason for the non-affluent and lower credentialed students to forego whatever potential benefits they would have obtained from the law degree. They are told that any intuitions they felt about the advantages of a law degree in the United States are the product of misinformation and optimism bias.

This debate so far is relatively one-sided. Today's New Legal Realists (2) and empirical legal scholars have not yet taken up the challenge of exposing problems with the current rhetoric of crisis. It may be too early in the debate, however, for any counter-attack to gain any credibility. Maybe the counter-attack, as in the 1930s, will have to await some kind of return to relative prosperity.

A simple conclusion could be that we simply wait out the crisis and let the process play out. The strength of the legal profession, I would argue, is once again demonstrated by the dominance of lawyers on both sides of the argument about the value of law school. This same entrepreneurial flexibility and quickness to sense an opportunity is what explains the ability of ever larger populations of lawyers to invent new demands and new products that employ their services. It may not be the time to write off investments in legal education and the degrees they provide.

Instead of stopping with that insight, however, I will make a preliminary effort to add what I consider to be more realism to the debate. It may be too early, but I want to offer a few thoughts, I expect many others to enter the debate as the economy rebounds and the crisis rhetoric loses its urgency, and there will be more data and research in the coming several years in part because of the energy of those who have promoted the feeling of crisis. (3)

I will suggest some ways to put the today's crisis in context. There are some differences that make the present situation scary and potentially dangerous, and the critics have made those very clear. The differences between today and the Depression era, however, arc not in the value of a legal education and law degree. The best data available, from the two published reports of the After the J.D. Project centered at the American Bar Foundation, tell us that law graduates truly value their law degrees and do not regret attending law school--despite their debt. (4)

But in order to understand that debt, we need to understand more realistically the competitive processes that produce the high tuitions and concomitant debt. The main difference from the Depression era is that legal education today is characterized by intense competition among the law schools (and law professors). There is also much more competition within the corporate sector of the legal profession. The competition is not the result of U.S. News. It comes from market conditions.

As the economist Caroline Hoxby showed for undergraduate education, rising tuition is not an example of the failure of the market, but rather is a reflection of an increase in competition among schools, which includes competition for rankings. (5) A more competitive market, to be sure, will have winners and losers, but they will not necessarily align with traditional professional hierarchies. Hoxby's insights about competitive educational markets help provide a more dispassionate and accurate account of where we are and how we got there.


    One theme of the rhetoric of the Depression in the 1930s was the permanent loss of legal business to groups outside the legal profession. This theme was repeated in numerous articles and speeches. According to James Gifford in The Nation,

    Title companies took over the searching of titles. Workmen's compensation began to eliminate litigation over industrial accidents. Summary trial, probation, and penal boards are removing much of the importance of the defense of criminals. Practice in taxation matters and before the Interstate Commerce Commission has fallen into the hands of specialists. The bank and trust company has threatened to poach on the sacred fields of the drafting and probating of wills. (6) According to an article entitled Too Many Lawyers?, "This competition outside the law profession proper cannot be overestimated." (7) Bar leader and future Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson opined that the decline in markets foretold "a declining prestige of courts and a corresponding decline in the prestige of the legal profession." (8) The legal market, they suggested, was at best static and might even be shrinking. The then-version of outsourcing--competition from title companies, banks, trust companies, and many others--was permanently threatening the livelihood of the practicing bar, and there was not enough new business on the horizon to compensate for that loss.

    The problem of too many lawyers, the articles tended also to note, was especially related to a certain kind of lawyer. The oft-repeated concern of those at the top of the profession---the WASPS in corporate law firms--was that the wrong kind of people were being admitted into the legal profession. As well-documented in Jerold Auerbach's Unequal Justice, (9) this attack on the YMCA law schools, night schools, proprietary...

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