• November 1, 2014

The Case for Undergraduate Law Degrees

The Case for Undergraduate Law Degrees 1

By Michael Morgenstern

The legal profession is in flux, and law schools are struggling to respond as globalization, low-cost online legal products, and outsourcing of legal services to nonlawyers are reshaping the profession. These changes are reflected in the type of employment law graduates can find—with fewer securing jobs for which a law license is required—­as well as in a sharp decrease in the number of law-school applicants.

Law schools have responded by reducing class sizes, expanding experiential-learning opportunities, and creating postgraduate law clinics to provide graduating students with their first law jobs. Many schools have also reduced tuition, either outright or through standardized discounts offered ostensibly as scholarships. These changes reflect the need, given a highly competitive job market, to produce graduates who have less debt and who are more "practice ready."

But the changes have failed to fully deal with the evolving reality of the legal profession, in particular the growing substitution of nonlawyers to do work previously performed by lawyers, and the increasing need to properly prepare those nonlawyers for careers in areas of substantial regulation.

In a recent essay in The Chronicle, Carol Parker lamented that "enrolling in a J.D. program remains the primary means of obtaining meaningful knowledge about our legal system." By her account, many professionals could benefit from legal training, yet the American system of legal education has required individuals to either "overinvest" in law school or go without such training.

She is partially correct. But many law schools already do what she suggests they should: offer professional-level degrees for nonlawyers. Indeed, many such programs exist at law schools across the country. Without exception, these master’s programs—typically called a master’s of legal studies or master’s of studies in law—have been promoted as a response to the pervasiveness of law in society and the utility of legal training for people across a variety of professions.

Master’s programs in legal studies for students who do not intend to become lawyers serve a real need. But because they are designed to serve only a small population and still adhere to the graduate model of legal education, such programs represent only a marginal change.

The same rationale that has motivated master’s programs for those students would also justify a more revolutionary move: expanding legal education to the undergraduate level.

Indeed, no university or law school in the United States offers an undergraduate degree in law. That is, until this fall, when the University of Arizona will introduce the nation’s first bachelor of arts in law. Stepping back from the culturally embedded assumption in America that legal training should be provided in professional schools, the lack of an undergraduate route to legal education is perplexing.

First, in most countries—including those requiring additional graduate-level training to become a licensed attorney—law is an undergraduate degree. Second, there is little rationale for excluding the study of law from the full range of undergraduate academic subjects. On the contrary, limiting legal education to graduate students has contributed to the mystification of law and created a reality in which too few people are equipped to grapple productively with the complex array of legal issues that are pervasive in business, government, and society.

Third, a law degree would offer many benefits to undergraduates, including the ability to independently research, read, and understand the law, as well as training in critical thinking and problem solving, analytical reasoning, and persuasive writing—all of which are highly marketable skills that translate well into a variety of professions, law-related or not.

Finally, undergraduate law degrees would be the best response to the reality that many law-related tasks are performed by people who are not lawyers but who need legal training. Examples include accountants who act as tax advisers, human-resource managers who must navigate employment law, school-compliance officers who create policies related to education law, mediators who provide conflict-resolution services, legal technicians who conduct e-discovery, and contract managers who draft and negotiate contracts.

The question is not whether nonlawyers will provide legal services; it’s whether they will be well trained. Undergraduate law degrees offer the most cost-effective and broadly accessible way to offer such training.

Because of their broad accessibility, undergraduate law degrees could democratize access to legal education in ways that small master’s programs for students who are not becoming lawyers simply cannot. Undergraduate law degrees might in turn lead to a more-informed social understanding of legal issues, help end lawyers’ near monopoly on legal knowledge, and reduce barriers to citizen participation in the legal system. Equally as important, they might also, in time, lead to the rethinking of some restrictions on the "unauthorized practice of law" and open avenues for those with undergraduate law degrees to provide meaningful access to legal services to underserved communities.

The graduate-only model of legal education imposes huge and often prohibitive costs on people wishing to study law. It’s also costly from a societal perspective, resulting in a shortage of people who are capable of handling complex legal issues.

It’s time to break the mold—and for law schools and universities to begin to think critically about the roles and advantages of undergraduate legal education.

Brent T. White is a professor of law at the University of Arizona.

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