How legal education is changing, albeit slowly

By Jack Crittenden

At this year’s annual gathering of law professors and law school administrators, known as the AALS Conference, the subject of change hung over the event as perhaps never before. All of the bad publicity about legal education over the past few years has not gone unnoticed by the leaders in legal education.

 

Indeed, there was more talk of change than ever before. And even more importantly, behind that talk, there is action.

As Judith Areen with Georgetown Law Center said at the conference, the current crisis has awakened legal education and that is the best defense against complacency.

Law schools across the nation are making changes to address the ongoing concerns. I spoke with deans who are taking aggressive steps to improve their career placement services, and who are bringing more hands’ on practical skills into their curriculum.

The level of experimentation and innovation is at its highest level since I began covering the market 20 years ago. But most observers don’t see the change, because it is happening on a school-by-school basis, and not through an organization like the ABA.

And thank goodness. The ABA has never been an instrument of change and likely never will be. Its greatest act of change only came because it was forced by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Law schools have the ability and power to enact change within the existing guidelines. But some changes would make that process much easier.

Take law faculty tenure for example. Many deans have been openly complaining for a few years now that the tenure rules bind them and force greater expenses.

Jim Chen, dean at University of Louisville, pointed out at the conference that “the single biggest cost in legal education is ourselves. When will salaries do down and tenure abolished?”

It was an over-the-top question, to be sure. Perhaps designed more to shock the audience out of complacency. But underlying his question is the single biggest obstacle to change in legal education.

The law school model is built on tenure, and professorial salaries are by far the biggest expense.

In most struggling industries, management simply cuts out the poor performing segments and reduces the number of employees — bringing the business into equilibrium.

But, tenure does not allow you to easily downsize legal education. Law schools have added more than 5,000 law professors over the past ten years. It would take legal education 20 to 30 years to bring itself back to its smaller size.

But that does not mean legal education can’t adapt. As Areen pointed out to Chen at the AALS conference, only one-fourth of new hires are given tenure. And I think we can expect that number to drop.

Further, law schools at the conference were looking for ways to expand their brand and utilize their existing staff in different ways. Suggestions included adding programs for foreign attorneys, offering CLE programs, and teaching paralegals and other non-lawyers in the legal market. All of these ideas would allow a law school to bring in new revenue while keeping costs to JD students flat.

This seems to be the future for legal education — to deal with the ongoing shortage in applicants by expanding, innovating and changing as much as the ABA rules will allow.

The change will come slow and on a school-by-school basis. But the important thing is that change is occurring. And while some feel the U.S. Department of Justice should again get involved, it appears law schools will adapt regardless — just slower than some would prefer.

 

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Comments

Great article and observations, Jack.

I believe law schools must offer executive training in other disciplines besides law to make their graduates competitive in recessionary economies. Such skills should be offered in business development, public speaking and professional communication, leadership, corporate finance, operations and other disciplines.

You can preview my book on the subject through www.avoidthelawschooltrap.com and if you'd like to explore the subject further, I'd be happy to speak with you.

How did tenure come to be a bad word? The principle behind tenure is academic freedom not undeserved employment. The change to the tenure system of employment in legal education comes from within the institutions and the policies that result in tenure. That shield phrase "but for just cause" can be included in the definition/description of tenure at every institution. “Just cause” could mean the repeated poor student evaluations, repeated poor peer reviews, poor supervisor reviews, lack of continued scholarship (some tenured faculty have not written any published articles in years), poor attendance at faculty events including events sponsored by student organizations that invite faculty, and so the list goes on. The institutions themselves refuse to put into place a set of metrics by which “just cause” can be identified.
As far as money is concerned, no one has ever said that a first year appointment to an inexperienced faculty member must be $100,000+ plus benefits. Many, and there are many, lawyer/educators who would gladly accept teaching positions that pay in-line with higher education educators in other disciplines if the prospect of future tenure was attainable.
The halls of law school faculty offices do not need to be lined with Professors who were once named partners in successful law firms. Many talented and bright practitioners are desirous of the opportunity to return to the classroom and share their experiences from the practice all the while bringing with them a high level of knowledge, an ability to produce useful scholarship, and a desire to teach.
I have, for one, been subjected to arbitrary and capricious termination. No negative personnel issues, good student and peer evaluations, and no hint that my contract would not be renewed. The Dean simply wanted to install his or her own people into legal education without the need of meeting the demands of faculty who are placed on tenure-track. No, no, no. The problem is not with the status of “tenure,” it is the lack of metrics that will allow for an objective evaluation as to whether tenure, for the individual, will continue. Keep academic freedom at the forefront of legal education, make tenure attainable, create metrics that will validate tenure, and bring salaries in-line with other professional educators.

What do you think of Wentworth Miller's (Yale Law '77) critique of law school education in his new book Gaming Emperor Law School (available free here: http://www.leews.com/gaming-emperor-law-school.html )?

The law schools know the demand for new attorneys is for the attorney to already have established experience in a previous line of work so the law firm is not starting with baby steps with the new graduates. The typical graduate may possibly have two years of full time work experience when they enter law school, some maybe five or six years at best and those years of work most likely did not develop to be one who would be considered well vested in the field.

Yet, the law schools fail to deliver graduates that meet the demand, this is why many graduates cannot find employment.

Whether the graduate came from; academia, business, engineering, public service there is a need for students with true in depth knowledge in various fields. That true knowledge combined with a newly earned law degree is what firms and businesses with inhouse counsel is requesting to hire.

The dilema is that the law schools do not want to give a law school seat to an older student, in essence the student with a great deal of real world knowledge in one or more fields. Wake Up.

Life spans are much longer and productivity is the same. One's mind does not have to become weaker with all the medical advances today, and the games such as Luminosity. The duldrum of the same old same old is what pushes ones mind to become forgetful, boredom. So why are the law schools denying persons over 40, 50 etc. access to one of their class seats? Are the schools oblivious to the fact that these experienced students will most likely be: hired quickly due to their combined expertise; quickly bring a return on investment for the hiring firm or business, non-profit, or public agency; make a positive impact sooner than years later; work without needing to take family leave time?

The schools will state that the older students do not fair as well on the LSAT scores as younger students, that this is likely due to their years of knowledge and experiences. No that is not true, the truth is that these mature students prepare more for the LSAT test and they do not take the test for granted. What is taking place is there is manipulation of the mature persons scantron test form that takes place either at the location where the test was taken, or possibly at the LSAC location where the tests are run through the computers. If your mouth has dropped then please close it. There is clear evidence of such manipulation, and breach of the LSAC testing requirements for entry to the exam, etc.

The LSAC application requires the test taker to provide: 1. Their birth date; 2. Their social security number, and we all know that the social security numbers go succintly in order. There is not a need for either, if a student is from outside the USA they will not have a social security number and LSAC will assign them a number to keep track of the test taker.

By requiring the birth date, in two places on the scantron form, the proctors can easily see which ones need a little adjustment. The adjustments protect the law schools as they do not have to deny these mature students because the LSAT scores do not meet the quality schools criteria. An easy cover and out.

When you have a president of a top ten law school explicitly state that they will not allow entrance into the law program to anyone over 34 years of age then you know there is a problem in the system. When you have a president of a top ten law school state that they do not need mature students with broad experience because the school is now making their law students take courses in: business, engineering, etc. Are you kidding me/us? Again, the school courses are not the real world with real world problems and fan throwing garbage at times.

These are the reasons new graduates are not finding jobs. The law schools are not allowing what is needed by employers; existing professionals from other areas of knowledge who then gain the knowledge and degree of law.

Stop the discrimination and you will meet the needs of the employers by providing them the established experienced graduates that will be running and not walking upon graduation.