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Friday, November 16, 2012

Burk: What Matters Most in Legal Education: Jobs, Not Cost or Curriculum

The Faculty Lounge:  What Matters Most (in Legal Ed These Days), by Bernard A. Burk (North Carolina):

What I’ve mostly been listening to and thinking about is the swelling threnody bemoaning — or in some cases celebrating — the impending Demise of Legal Education As We Know It. ...

There are roughly three categories of contumely being heaped on the legal academy these days. Two of them have received disproportionate attention, and what’s striking is that they are pretty clearly not the ones that Matter Most. Those two are arrays of related contentions (1) that law school fails to prepare students for practice; and (2) that law school costs too much. ...

What Matters Most is that there are today significantly more seats in accredited American law schools than there are entry-level law jobs for the emerging graduates. This is obviously neither an original nor a novel observation; lots of people in addition to me have written about it. But its fundamental importance has received surprisingly little attention. ...

I’ll have more to say about this in coming months, but this post is already long enough. The long and the short of it is that What Matters Most is that there are too many law-school seats and not enough law-grad jobs. In most markets, what happens when there is an oversupply is that production and price fall until the market clears. That’s already happening today. Prospective law students have become aware of the undersupply of law jobs, and law-school applications are falling significantly. Many law schools appreciably reduced the size of their entering classes this fall in response to the falling number of qualified applicants. Price competition on tuition (right now predominantly through the tactical use of financial aid) is being reported. Many schools will shrink, and some will fail.  Many will experiment with curricular, placement and financial innovations to meet the demands of the times and attract more and more-qualified applicants. Critically, all of this will be driven by the applicant pool’s perceptions about what kinds of value a law degree will furnish by the time you’re done getting one. And that’s why the oversupply of law-grad production and the undersupply of entry-level jobs are What Matters Most right now. The really interesting questions are which schools are going to be most and most quickly affected by these forces and how.

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For a licensed profession like law, the education pipeline would be expected to be related to the near term demand. The high cost does make an impact on those who might want to study law for business or professional reasons but not necessarily practice. My father did this in the 1960's where he took law at night after leaving the Navy, passed the bar but never practiced. He did use his legal training in his business activities.

A high cost legal education precludes this type of path (and thus a cushion of students for law schools when legal jobs are down).

Posted by: DirtyJobsGuy | Nov 16, 2012 1:18:19 PM

Only in this professor's dreams is this true.

The biggest problem facing law schools is that even a purportedly GOOD outcome (job w/ law firm 1-50 attorneys, S/S of $60,000) is still a terrible outcome given a debt load in excess of $150,000.00. What is so hard to understand about that?

So, the only jobs that qualify as a genuinely good outcome are Biglaw jobs and government jobs that qualify for major debt relief. I'd estimate 2,500 Biglaw jobs and 2,500 goverment jobs annually for the next 10 years. So, approximately 5,000 total good outcomes each year.

By the way, the reduction in Biglaw jobs will be permanent. The rapid expansion and contraction in the mid 2000's has more to with the rise and fall of e-discovery than the rise and fall of the economy. Clients simply won't pay for route tasks anymore, nor should they. Previously, legions of litigation associates and even corporate associates were kept busy with very basic document review and simple administrative tasks. Those days are over.

What the legal academy needs to answer for is why a first-year associate position at a well-regarded local/regional law firm with 5-20 attorneys has become a terrible outcome for most students. Of course the answer is the prolific rise of educational cost.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 16, 2012 2:19:58 PM

I am glad to see more people inside academia focusing on something important -- too many grads for the number of jobs -- instead of the window dressing that is curricular reform. However, I think it's pretty clear that tuition is What Matters Most.

If the average debt load is around $125,000 and the average salary is half that, then even if there are enough law jobs to go around, it still means a lot of bad results.

We need fewer law schools, for sure, but we also need the lower ranked schools to start pricing themselves in a way that actually relates to the salaries their grads can reasonably expect.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 18, 2012 2:32:05 AM