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法学院还有没有未来

Elizabeth G. Olson 2012年12月24日

美国申请和就读法学院的学生越来越少,有舆论呼吁法律教育系统做出重大改变,以适应多变的就业市场。不少法学院已经开始缩减招生规模,调整三年制的教学模式。一度风光无限的法学院如今陷入了低谷。它们还能找回昔日的荣光吗?

纽约大学(NYU)修改了大学三年级的课程设置,试图应对法学生的多变需求。

    决定不参加法学院入学考试的学生人数越来越可观,因为他们所面对的是法律类职位的短缺和身负沉重债务的未来。部分法学院正在精简班级规模,修订课程设置,但是大部分仍在继续推行原有体制,一部分甚至还在扩张。

    各大法学院内都流传着一种观点,认为法律系应当教授更加实用的技能,侧重那些覆盖面较为狭窄、但是经久不衰的法律课题,比如破产,甚至可以砍掉法律专业的第三个学年。但也有观点认为,法律教育要靠彻头彻尾的新模式才能生存下去,比如采用模块化教学,划定课程时数,由兼职教授授课,或者开办那种更像是职业学校的律师学院,培养一毕业就能马上开始执业的律师。

    本期《密歇根大学法律改革学报》(Michigan Journal of Law Reform)中概述了两种可能性,文章的作者是凯尔•麦肯蒂以及两名来自法律教育政策组织法学院透明度(Law School Transparency)的署名作者。这个组织成立于2009年,致力于提高法律系入学程序的公开度和就业数据的透明度。

    “目前,各大院校正在试水各种应对措施,”麦肯蒂说。“但是这个问题已经到了紧要关头。我们得开始思考新的对策和新的体制。光靠修修补补是不够的。”

    揭秘法学院的赚钱机器

    迄今为止,全美共200所法学院中,约半数正在缩减入学新生的班级规模,还有不少法学院在为学生提供更多的经济资助,以便有效地降低学生的学费负担。然而眼下强大的经济现实是,开设法学院可是笔大买卖。法学院的学生毕业时,每人平均要背负10万美元以上的债务,由此可见学费之高。

    当中的一大因素是师资人员的薪水,在重点或大型法学院,部分法律教授的年薪在35万到40万美元以上。除了排名在前10%内的顶级法律机构外,这个金额远超其他法律从业人员的薪资水平。

    但是,法学院的院长们几乎一致坚称,法学院的学费价有所值,辩称法律学位能够保值数年之久。他们本身也兼任法律教授,当中很少有人愿意干预一台成熟的盈利机器,或者不惜惹恼校友来让本校的专业学位贬值。

    “这是一种强大的主导力量,有它自身的动力存在,”布赖恩•塔玛纳哈表示。他是华盛顿大学法学院(Washington University School of Law)的教授,同时也是《失败的法学院》(Failing Law Schools)一书的作者。他总结说,唾手可得的贷学金、固步自封的评审程序,还有全国法学院排名,都助长了这种一刀切式的法学院体制,而这种体制并不适合大多数的学生。

    Students are opting out of the law school entrance exam in significant numbers as they confront a scarcity of law jobs and the prospect of staggering debt loads. While some law schools are trimming back class sizes and tinkering with curriculum, most are forging ahead, and some are even expanding.

    There is talk among law schools of teaching more practical skills, focusing on narrower, but enduring, legal specialties like bankruptcy, and even lopping off the third year of law school. But others are saying legal education's survival will come by way of radical new models like modular teaching, which would use part-time professors for defined periods, or lawyer academies, which are more like trade schools readying attorneys to practice immediately after graduating.

    These are two possibilities outlined in the current issue of the Michigan Journal of Law Reform, by Kyle McEntee and two co-authors from Law School Transparency, a group founded in 2009 to make the law school admissions process more open and job placement numbers clear.

    "Right now, schools are dabbling in what to do," says McEntee, "but the issue is already at crisis proportion. We have to start thinking about new options and new systems. Tinkering is not enough."

    Inside the law school earnings machine

    So far, about half of the nation's 200 law schools are cutting back the size of their entering classes, and many are handing out more student financial aid, which effectively lowers tuition. But the powerful economic reality is that law schools are big business, with tuition high enough that students graduate with an average of more than $100,000 each in debt.

    Salaries are a major factor, with some law professors at elite or large law schools earning in excess of $350,000 to $400,000 annually. These sums significantly outpace other legal remuneration, except for the 10% in the upper ranks at top law firms.

    But law school deans insist, almost uniformly, that the tuition rates are worth it, arguing that the law degree will hold its value over a period of years. And few deans, also law professors themselves, want to meddle with a proven earning machine or trigger alumni wrath by devaluing the professional degree.

    "It's a powerful juggernaut that has momentum of its own," says Brian Tamanaha, a Washington University School of Law professor and author of Failing Law Schools. Readily available student loans, lock-step accreditation processes, and national law school rankings also have helped create a one-size-fits-all law school system that does not suit the majority of students, he concludes.

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