Why one prof wants to cut law school by a third

stephen_harperBy Maria Beltran

Steven Harper, litigator of 30 years and adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law, isn’t a fan of law school.

Well, not all of it, anyway. Harper is a prominent advocate of eliminating the third year of law school.

The author of  four books and the award-winning blog “The Belly of the Beast”, Harper also teaches what he calls ‘10 weeks of reality therapy’ for undergrads in the legal studies seminar called “American Lawyers: Demystifying the Profession.”

“There has been a recent disconnect between expectation and reality,” Harper remarked. “Students need to know what’s going on in the profession.”

As an outgrowth of the undergraduate course he teaches, Harper wrote “The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis,” where he recounts the wrong approaches he believes law schools have taken in creating an oversupply of lawyers and high employee
unhappiness.

“These are the problems that can be seen, but no one wants to talk about them,” Harper said.

Despite President Obama’s recent endorsement of eliminating a year of law school, Harper thinks the third year won’t disappear anytime soon. Harper explained the first year is about teaching prospective attorneys to think like lawyers and the second covers basic legal areas, with the most relevant training occurring outside the classroom under practicing attorneys. Even though many prospective lawyers develop specialties, these don’t result from taking courses during the third year of law school.

“If it’s really not essential, then why should there be a third year and why should 85% of students come out of law school with hundreds of thousands in debt?” Harper asks. For him, law schools are run as businesses, maximizing short-term profits.

“Defenders of a third year of law school will always be deans and law professors,” Harper said. “Deans will always dislike the idea because of cut revenues.”

In addition, he said US News Rankings have created perverse incentives: the more a school spends on students, the higher its ranking.

According to Harper, the US News Rankings have caused a “vicious circle of stupidity in terms of the way both students and deans are responding, developed by someone who isn’t even a lawyer or holds any sort of legal degree.”

“Undergrad students now sacrifice independent judgment in favor of flawed rankings,” Harper added. Like many for-profit universities, law schools seem to only see students as dollar bills.

“Law schools’ high tuitions will persist, student debt will grow, and job prospects will
remain bleak,” Harper wrote in his article “Obama’s Good, and Hopeless, Idea for Law Schools.”

He believes that the continuing law school model requires maximizing revenue and filling classroom seats, regardless of student employment prospects at graduation, since only half will find jobs requiring a JD.

So what does the future hold for the law profession? Harper seems optimistic. “As long as people make an informed decision about entering law school, schools will continue to attract great people who will do things with a law degree. I think in the long range it’ll sort itself out.”

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