Clinics and Costs

May 6th, 2017 / By

Bob Kuehn has written an incisive article about the relationship between law school tuition and clinical education. Contrary to many educators’ assumptions, Bob finds that there is no statistically significant relationship between the tuition charged by schools that require a clinical experience and schools that do not. Requiring students to complete a clinic before graduation, in other words, does not correspond with increased tuition.

Similarly, schools that guarantee students a clinical experience–should they choose to take one–do not charge significantly higher tuition than schools without that guarantee. Accounting for tuition discounts did not change these results: Schools with clinical requirements or guarantees did not acquire significantly more tuition revenue per student than those without those requirements or guarantees.

The same story emerged when Bob analyzed clinical course availability (rather than requirements or guarantees). Enhanced clinical opportunities never correlated significantly with higher tuition (either list price or discounted). On the contrary, several analyses found a significant relationship between clinical opportunities and lower tuition rates. Bob summarizes the results of his research in a post on the Best Practices for Legal Education blog.

How could this be? Aren’t clinics incredibly expensive to run? Well, yes and no. As Bob explains, the availability of clinical education depends more on the choices that law schools make than on the direct cost of clinics.

The Costs

We can all point to the costs of clinical education. Clinics require a low student-to-professor ratio, preferably no more than eight students per professor each semester. They also require office support and money to cover expenses like court filing fees, deposition costs, and malpractice insurance.

Those costs mount up, but so do other items in the law school budget. Law schools, for example, devote extraordinary financial resources to faculty scholarship. Over the last few decades, tenure-track salaries have climbed; teaching loads have fallen; and expenses for conferences, workshops, summer support, other research assistance, and travel have risen.

Administrative costs also absorb an increasing percentage of the law school budget. Schools today support a wide array of program coordinators, event organizers, communications staff, admissions recruiters, associate deans, and other functions that barely existed twenty years ago.

Even the cost of traditional classes and seminars has risen. When I attended law school, most of my first-year classes (as well as several upper-level electives) were taught in sections of 150 students. Classes of that size are rare today; the student-to-professor ratio has plummeted at most schools.

As a point of comparison, Bob estimates in another recent paper that the faculty labor cost for a clinic is less than that for a 20-student podium course. The costs of clinical education are high, but so are the costs of many other facets of legal education.

The Benefits

All of the expenditures mentioned above produce benefits. Academic research has value, so do smaller classes and administrative services. The question that Bob raises, and that all educators should confront, is whether these expenditures produce more value than clinical education. What is the cost/benefit ratio for different items in the law school budget?

Faculty research, for example, has tremendous value for students, clients of the legal system, and society at large. Even seemingly arcane topics produce unexpected value. I have written highly theoretical papers that were used in litigation, as well as a legal history article that attracted a lay audience.

Even conceding the high value of scholarship, however, are we spending too much on that particular good? During the twentieth century, law professors produced a substantial quantity of excellent scholarship with lower salaries, higher teaching loads, and old-fashioned technologies. What are the marginal returns of our much greater investment in scholarship today?

We should ask similar questions about the lower enrollments in many podium classes. A lower student-to-professor ratio is, in general, a good thing. But what are we doing with that improved ratio? Some professors offer writing exercises, simulations, or mid-semester feedback in their small courses but the majority (to my knowledge) do not. How much value do students receive from these smaller class sizes?

In my experience, tenure-track faculty place a high value on scholarship and small podium classes–without analyzing that value in any rigorous manner. Conversely, most tenure-track faculty greatly underestimate the value of clinical courses.

I make the latter assertion from experience: I used to be one of those tenure-track faculty members. I knew clinics provided some sort of value, and I supported their existence, but I had very little sense of what clinics actually did–or the learning opportunities they provided students.

That changed once I began co-teaching our criminal defense clinic in 2009, took on a prosecution clinic a few years later, and moved my office to our clinical suite. The amount of learning that occurs in a clinic dwarfs that of any other course I have taught–with the exception of first-year legal writing. Clinic students research and apply doctrinal law in a much more sophisticated way than in other courses. They learn to interview people, gather facts, counsel clients, interact with other lawyers, negotiate, and advocate positions to real decision makers.

And that’s just the beginning. Clinic students learn to cope with hidden agendas, exaggerated or false “facts,” shifting circumstances, and their own ambitions–all features that characterize daily law practice but are difficult to reproduce in simulations. Equally important, clinic students integrate these facets of law practice and learn how to solve multi-dimensional, law-related problems

Clinic students, finally, experience the strengths and weaknesses of our legal system, including the inequities based on race, gender, income, and other factors. We can talk about those issues in seminars and podium classes, but students confront them directly in clinical work.

The Balance

The learning that clinic students achieve would not be possible without the foundations laid in other courses; I do not advocate replacing law school with a three-year clinical experience. On the other hand, I balk at the fact that students can earn a JD without a clinical experience. Clinics teach skills and a type of integrative problem-solving that are essential to “thinking like a lawyer.” They also allow students to interact directly with some part of the legal system and reflect on the operation of that system. Every student, whatever their career plans, will derive unique benefits from taking a clinic.

As Bob lucidly explains in his article and post, we can expand clinical education to every JD student without increasing tuition. Our failure to require clinics, or even to guarantee that experience for every interested student, is one of choice rather than cost. It’s time to take a hard look at costs and benefits throughout the law school budget–and to strike a better balance for the students, clients, and the society we serve.


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