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.