More on the Future of American Legal Education

by Robert Howse

[Robert Howse is the Lloyd C. Nelson Professor of International Law at New York University School of Law.]

Thanks to Kevin Heller for taking to Opinio Juris the discussion I started on Prawfsblawg about the future of American law schools.

I agree with Kevin entirely that there are excellent institutions of legal education in other countries, including but not limited to the ones he mentions.  In my original post, I did not say-as some critics have suggested-that the US has a “monopoly” on high quality legal education, but only (more modestly) a competitive advantage.  But these days the notion of American decline is it seems so widely held among pundits and professors that saying that America remains a leader in anything may start sounding atavistic and unappreciative of the genuine achievements of other societies.  My sense is that the demand for high quality legal education cannot be met in many countries by existing institutions in those countries as they now operate. That’s not based on some kind of personal arrogance but two decades of globetrotting as a legal academic. Mostly I am reporting the judgments of students and professors themselves in the countries in question.

I hope I did not say or imply that the foreign JD market is “vast”. Indeed, I mentioned one of the main limits of that market in my original post-law is a first degree in most countries and so we would need to rethink our own approach to address that extremely important factor.

Kevin makes a very important point about the expense of an American law degree compared to the cost of studying in one’s own country (or even an elite institution in a third country).  Some of my readers took me to be suggesting that I think students will pay that cost because they will have access to high-paying jobs at prestigious law firms as a result of the American degree.  That is far from certain, and we shouldn’t be marketing ourselves based on that premise.  I’ve talked to foreign students who have chosen JD study in the US, and not only in the so-called “elite” law schools.  The reasons they give for this choice are multiple, but usually involve both a perception of the relatively higher quality of US legal education to that which would be accessible to them at home and additional reasons for choosing the US over some of the great institutions in other countries that Kevin mentions.  Again, I emphasize that I am not talking about a “monopoly” by any means.  But rather that we have a degree of competitive advantage in a real market that we need to understand better, and better serve.

Understandably, Kevin focuses on the aspect of my argument that concerns the foreign JD market.  That may, however, give the misimpression that I view foreign JDs as a panacea.  My post equally explores the importance of executive and continuing education to the future of American law schools and that we can do a great deal more to design effective programs to provide non-lawyers with elements of legal education they increasingly need to pursue their own professional and business goals.

Finally, I see a strategy of playing our strengths globally as consistent with and reinforcing of efforts elsewhere to improve the quality of legal education.  And here I think the potential of mutually advantageous partnerships with foreign institutions is considerable.

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