Law schools today face extraordinary challenges. Current realities are forcing re-examination of the traditional model of legal education.

The dramatic rise in law school tuition is resulting in staggering levels of debt for new lawyers: The average debt for private law school graduates now exceeds $100,000. And it will be a rare private law school on either coast that keeps its tuition below $40,000 next year.

Meanwhile, post-graduate salaries are bimodal in distribution. Even before the current employment downturn, fewer than one-quarter of law school graduates earned the high salaries offered by large private law firms. Although the starting associates at these firms were paid as much as $160,000, the median salary for 2008 graduates was $72,000 — that is, a full half of recent graduates before the current downturn were earning less than this amount. Now, of course, there are fewer highly paid positions available, large law firms are re-examining their approach to hiring and practitioners are putting increasing pressure on law schools to train students who can move directly into productive professional practice.

But the traditional law school that exists today was designed to provide classroom instruction focusing on doctrine and analysis, interspersed only recently with some skills-based classes, clinics and externships. Many law schools have aspired to be full members of the academic enterprise, promoting the law as a scholarly pursuit.

Of course, the complex task of educating people to be key players in our system of justice cannot be reduced to a simple set of tasks. And responding to the pressure to expand practical teaching is not always easy. Formal clinical legal education — with a very low student-to-faculty teaching ratio — is expensive. Simple expansion of this model would substantially increase the price of legal education at a time when costs must be contained. Quick changeover is impossible, as many tenured faculty remain committed to scholarly pursuits and lack the background to teach practical skills.

Added to these very real challenges is ubiquitous concern about the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Research now suggests that schools are responding to these rankings not only by questionable reporting but also by changes in the way they admit students, provide financial assistance and design educational programs. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report indicates that rising tuition levels are, at least in part, a reflection of law schools’ response to the “rankings game.” Government Accounting Office, Higher Education: Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access, October 2009, rev’d Dec. 7, 2009.

The education of the next generation of lawyers is critical to the future of our system of justice. The costs of law school, when combined with the troubling profile of post-law school salaries and the current downturn in the availability of jobs for new lawyers, may legitimately inhibit talented people from seeking law degrees. If this occurs, it will have long-term detrimental effects on our legal system.

These concerns were recently echoed by Gene Nichol, now a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, in remarks at the annual meeting of law school deans held in conjunction with the mid-winter meeting of the American Bar Association. Nichol, who previously served as dean of the law schools at both the University of North Carolina and the University of Colorado and as president of the College of William and Mary, noted that law schools are facing a “perfect storm,” as endowments have tumbled, state funding for public law schools has been cut and what he called the once “bountiful and lucrative” job market for our graduates has all but disappeared.

While some lament that we’re just training too many lawyers, in fact the majority of people in this country cannot afford the cost of private lawyers. At the same time, the providers of civil legal services to the indigent are stretched beyond their capacity, as decreasing resources meet increasing demand during this recession. With permanent staff on furlough and no new jobs to fill, these organizations have welcomed free help from deferred law firm associates who are unlikely to stay once the economy revives.

The current challenges facing law schools must be seen as a challenge to our profession as a whole. The pressure for change and adaptation is reverberating through law schools across the country.

CRITICAL DEVELOPMENTS

In fact, there are several critical developments that provide hope that we are starting to adapt to the challenges.

First, many law schools are now exploring alternative models of legal education. At the recent annual meeting of deans of law schools, virtually every dean described new experientially based programs. The most significant development may be that schools are pushing traditional boundaries to place students outside in the world.

Clinical teaching generally provides tightly controlled practice-based experiences for students under the careful guidance of full-time faculty. A few schools — including City University of New York School of Law and the University of New Mexico School of Law — have long required students to take at least one clinical course.

Externships are the emerging alternative — or addition — to this model. These opportunities provide real-world experience to students in ways that are more diverse — both geographically and in terms of practice opportunities — than we can provide inside our law schools. And externships allow for a genuine partnership between the practicing bar and law school faculty.

Examples can be found, in different forms, across the country, and they are growing rapidly at all kinds of schools, both public and private. At Northeastern University School of Law, we have had a program for more than 40 years that includes four mandatory, full-time quarter-length externships during which students work under the direction of a supervising attorney or judge. To support this program, the school has developed relationships with more than 900 employers across the United States and now internationally. The result is that the education of the students has become a shared enterprise between supervising attorneys, in all kinds of legal offices, and our faculty — and our students are fully acquainted with the various worlds of legal work before they finish their law school training.

The abundance of choice of placements at Northeastern has had some secondary effects on our students and school that are, I believe, profoundly good for the profession. Almost all of our students, irrespective of their own career goals, have worked in both private and public settings; most have worked for one calendar quarter in the public sector or in civil or criminal legal services for the poor; all have experienced the pressures and the rewards of work in varied practice settings; and all have developed a diverse professional network.

Externship programs, evolving differently now at different law schools, may solve, at least to some extent, the tension between cost and practice-based education. The willingness of members of the practicing bar to take law students “under their wing” means that we can combine the best of both worlds in educating young lawyers, without continuing to dramatically increase the cost of legal education.

Second, we now have better tools to address the misalignment between the salaries earned by many graduates and their educational debt burden. While it is true that immediate post-graduate salaries are quite low for young lawyers who enter small private law firms, studies show that salaries stay persistently low for those who pursue legal employment in the public, nonprofit or legal services/public defender sectors.

The federal College Cost Reduction Act offers real help. First, it allows all lawyers earning low salaries to apply an income-based reduction calculation to defer loan payments until their salaries rise. In addition, it provides full loan forgiveness for lawyers who work for 10 years in qualifying public service or nonprofit employment. Because of the reduced monthly payments, it is now an achievable goal for schools to have loan-repayment assistance programs that can bring the cost of law school to close to zero for graduates who pursue public service careers. Georgetown University Law Center and Northwestern University School of Law, among others, have now announced significantly expanded loan-repayment programs. Northeastern, and I hope many other schools, will soon follow.

Third, the number of law school applicants continues to grow. It seems quite clear, for the time being at least, that bright problem-solvers are still attracted to the legal profession and that these talented young people are eager to contribute to the common good.

If those of us who are committed to the profession continue to mentor and encourage them, these new lawyers will help to address the serious issues we are facing. This requires a strong partnership between law schools and all sectors of the practicing bar. I believe that the current conditions will help all of us rise to the challenge.

Emily A. Spieler is the dean at Northeastern University School of Law.