TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Death of 'Big Law School'?

Erik F. Gerding (New Mexico) has an interesting post on Conglomerate, Death of "Big Law School"?:

[The decline of Big Law firms] would likely mean the end of the law school boom -- with its expanding law faculties and the bumper crop of new law schools. Like it or not, the business model (I hate applying that term to legal education, but can't think of another one) of many law schools is heavily dependent on students getting high paying law firm jobs to pay off high law school tuition. Law firms are also prime benefactors of law school endowments. Without corporate law consuming law school graduates by the dozens, law school will face massive economic pressure.

On the one hand, these pressures will push law schools to improve the training of law graduates so that they are ready on "day one." Helping students in a tougher economic market supports the Carnegie/ABA best practices reforms that have been discussed so much.

But the changing economics of legal education will also cut the other way. The Best Practices model is expensive, and with tighter budgets law schools will also face pressures to move in the direction of the traditional "stack-em and pack-em" model of large classes. ...

Law teaching is likely to become a lot less genteel too. Without law firm largesse, law schools will no longer be insulated from many of the pressures felt by other academic units on campus. Expect greater use of adjunct faculty and graduate students to teach (with VAPs morphing from their original role as professor training to filling curricular holes in a faculty in a cheap, "temporary" way).

Expect a greater push by administrations for faculty to fund part of their salary with grants. This means greater power to the few grant-making organizations that focus on law (like the Kaufman foundation) to shape legal discourse. Industry groups may also fund research to a greater extent with all the attendant potential for intellectual compromise. Will law schools look increasingly hierarchical like labs in the hard sciences or universities in Europe? Ask a junior researcher in a science lab on campus what their professional life is like. ...

A few traps for faculties lurk. First, how do we think about the business model of legal education without completely transforming education into a business? Second, if we all care about consumer protection, how do we make sure that applicants to law schools apply with clear eyes towards the professional prospects that await them rather than over-optimism and romanticism? Like many of you, I have problems with U.S. News rankings, but the solution is not less information (or less competition for students), but better metrics and better disclosure.

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Administrators always push for faculty to fund themselves, since that provides an even greater justification for the corporatist salaries that have become more common in academe. Fact is, that's where changes should start. It really isn't justificable to pay deans and associate deans tens or hundreds of thousands more than law faculty are paid. It isn't justificable to pay university presidents and other central administrators the kinds of salaries they are paid. Many, not all, faculty could do all of those jobs as well or better than they are being done now.

If we really think that academe SHOULD be different, because it is a place where ideas are cultivated, then we should make it possible for it to REMAIN different. Academe should not become just one more cog in the corporatist wheel. Industrial funding that substitutes for faculty salaries shouldn't become the norm--it is highly problematic already in the sciences. It will be problematic in law. It will be even harder to make any changes that go against big business or elitist power structures because there will not be an unbiased--or at least, unbought--academic voice.

Posted by: taxprof | Nov 10, 2009 1:46:55 PM

Well put taxprof. And maybe the crunch will help by forcing law schools to rethink the role of "servicing" law firms that aren't hiring their graduates anymore, anyway. Would it be too much to hope they rediscover the joy of teaching people skills, like thinking creative and effectively, that are valuable in more than one kind of legal (or nonlegal) work.

Posted by: mike livingston | Nov 10, 2009 7:00:25 PM

I do not see a death of big law schools. Rather, I see schools paring down on the number they admit. I also expect undergraduate law programs to resurface in states like California that allow almost anyone to sit for the bar exam. Lawyers are just commodities and unless students can expect to pay the bills when it is all said and done, then there will be fewer students willing to pay the outrageous prices demanded by law schools.

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 11, 2009 1:50:45 AM

Really? Less law student admits? Then why is U of I's 1L class so MASSIVE this year?

Posted by: Illinois Grad | Nov 11, 2009 8:29:36 AM