Yes, the books in law school cost a fortune. As if paying more than $60,000 isn’t expensive enough, now we have to fund books that weigh heavily on our budgets. It is not uncommon to find casebooks that are often used in law school retailing over $100, with some even as expensive as $200 or $250. Often, the editions are updated very quickly given the rapid changes in the law, and so using an old edition becomes a headache for the student due to mismatched page numbers for readings. Some professors gleefully mention that students will have to buy the newest edition because of important changes, and so law students try to cut down on beer money to fund textbooks.
The complaints due to expensive books die down throughout the semester. Usually seen as a fixed cost or “can’t complain, have to just buy” cost, law students are in a vulnerable position of power when it comes to buying these books. There is also something morally questionable when a professor who is the writer of a casebook forces students to buy his book without providing an e-copy. It’s like I force you to buy something and then benefit from it through royalty payments. And you have no choice because that is the only medium of instruction that has been chosen for you.
But then, what’s so wrong about that? Isn’t a professor just like a writer trying to profit from readership? Why is that being a professor actually means one has to provide books for free? Compiling casebooks is actually hard work, as one has to parse through many cases and research articles and provide extended commentary on them. Also, one has to keep up with the changes in the law and connect them to previous cases that are no longer the legal position. All of this demands that the professor also get his or her pound of flesh for the hard work that has been put in. Also, if students are able to foot the bill for a luxury law education costing $60,000, maybe the issue is with spending an additional $200 on a wealth of information — the esteemed casebook.
All these are strong objections. No student is realistically arguing that we do away completely with casebooks. However, some alternatives can be suggested that are already in place for some subjects, but not for all across the board. For those that can afford the casebook or the used copy off of Amazon, great. But for students who want a soft-copy of the readings, these should be made available at least before every class. This way the student who has over-extended himself to come to law school, perhaps by debt, is not further burdened with more debt by borrowing money to finance books. Some professors have cheaper Kindle editions available, while some have even had subsidized printing — casebooks costing as little as $25 — with a hyperlinked version available for free online. Since most of the cases in American courts can be viewed easily for free online, charging hefty sums for case excerpts can be limited for those wanting the print version of the books. Going digital could help reduce costs for the student and even benefit the environment.
But will the established industry of casebook publishers and law professors like this idea? To them, will it reflect a reduction in the slice of an already diminishing pie? It is difficult to give up the comforts of an established market, but if people aren’t going to question the high cost of legal education, then we must question the frills attached to it and make sure those are at least sustainable for students in the long-run.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 10 print edition.
Email Sam Chaddha at [email protected]