The Legal Beat
As Law Students Sue Schools Over Exorbitant Tuition For Online Classes, Consolidation Might Be Coming
Posted on Thursday July 30, 2020
As reported by ATL and many other news outlets, law schools are increasingly moving to online classes for the fall 2020 semester. Yet, most of these schools are not offering any kind of meaningful tuition reduction for the students who are getting an online experience rather than the in-person experience they originally signed up for.
You can’t blame law schools for a pandemic. They still have to pay professors’ salaries and maintain their facilities. Still, it doesn’t seem fair to students to charge them more than the median household income to basically watch interactive YouTube. I mean, it didn’t seem fair to me, even long before COVID-19, for law schools to charge as much as they do just to serve as an entrance barrier into a profession that for most of its participants is a life of thankless toil in a job they hate (if they are lucky enough to find a job at all). I guess you’ll have to read my book if you want to hear more about that.
Anyway, the COVID-19 situation has awoken a few law students to the reality that they’re dramatically overpaying for a legal education. A rising 2L sued Harvard Law over its steadily high $65,875 annual tuition going into the fall for online classes. Students have filed two class action suits against Cal Western Law as it increases tuition costs for the fall semester, despite the new distance-learning model. There are probably going to be more of these.
The lawyers filing these lawsuits obviously see some merit to them. Other civil litigators, myself included, are skeptical. Despite being a litigator, I think litigation in general is a pretty bad way to try to solve most of life’s problems, and, despite being a progressive, I think there is a solid free market solution right in front of these students: if you don’t like how much your crappy law school is charging you to hang out in its Zoom meetings, don’t go to that law school.
Whether the lawsuits get any traction or not though, surely the pandemic is going to result in more legal education going online. As someone who taught first-year legal writing for many years, in a program that had some in-person components but had a lot of online interactions too, I can tell you that there is very little need for bricks-and-mortar classroom sessions in at least some legal subject areas. The hardest thing about the program I taught in was that it started as a pilot program, and the ABA, being skeptical of anything new and internet-related in a very lawyerly fashion, required the law school, in an abundance of caution in trying something new, to build more rigor into the program than I’ve seen in any IRL legal-writing program.
If we learn during the pandemic, that we can do more law school classes online, shouldn’t we keep it up after the pandemic? Unless made artificially into more work than it has to be, an online program is more efficient than a bricks-and-mortar program. Facilities costs would be lessened, class sizes could be increased without losing anything (unless you incorrectly think there’s educational value in an increased chance of being cold-called and embarrassed Paper Chase-style), and law students wouldn’t have to deal with the time-consuming and expensive logistics of getting to in-person class sessions.
Law school everywhere, for everyone, is not going all-online anytime soon. But it pretty realistically could be far more online, to almost everyone’s advantage, on a more permanent basis after the pandemic ends. If there could be more students at some of the established schools because of the efficiencies created by increased online learning, tuition could be lower for all of them. Students might feel more like they were getting what they paid for, because they’d be paying far less for it. The law schools would have a broader base of tuition support. The only losers would be law schools that are really struggling, whose students would be gobbled up by the growing online programs at the better schools. And even the vast majority of law schools agree there are too many law schools.
It’s something to think about, at least. Nobody’s happy that we’re dealing with this pandemic. But it’d be a shame to learn nothing from it and just go back to the deeply flawed way things were before COVID-19 forced law schools to try their hand at online learning.
Jonathan Wolf is a litigation associate at a midsize, full-service Minnesota firm. He also teaches as an adjunct writing professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has written for a wide variety of publications, and makes it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at [email protected].