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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Texas A&M Law School Dean's Ten Reasons To Be Cheerful About The Future Of Legal Education

Andrew Morriss (Dean, Texas A&M), Reasons to be Cheerful: The Future of Legal Education:

This is a time of turmoil in legal education, and, to a large extent, in higher education generally.  Enrollment in U.S. law schools has dropped to 1974 levels, yet there are more than fifty additional law schools now. Enrollments have fallen even at highly regarded schools, as illustrated by the announcement from Washington & Lee that it was cutting its entering class size to 100 (which translates into a roughly 25% cut from prior norms), increasing the payout from its endowment to 7.5% (i.e. drawing down principal – unless the university has some truly amazing investment managers who are getting extraordinary returns; a more usual endowment payout is around 4%) to boost revenue, and shrinking its faculty and staff.  Poor employment numbers and rising student debt has caused criticism of law schools for running “scams” to spread on line, while  Brian Tamanaha’s Failing Law Schools sparked discussion about where law schools were headed. These are all stresses on legal education.

It is not easy to be in such a market, but stresses on markets usually force competition to sharpen and I think there is reason to believe that the stresses legal education and the rest of higher education are under will produce an improvement in quality in the long run. That may be small comfort to some in the short run but the opportunities for improved legal education are significant.

My reasons for being cheerful rest on trends we are experiencing as competition has its way even in markets dominated by non-profit service producers. The three big improvements I think we will see will be:

  • Lower tuition and related costs;
  • More attention to the quality of education students receive; and
  • More diversity in methods of legal education.

In short, legal education will be cheaper, get better, and offer more variety in the types of education offered. To see why, let’s look at ten of the trends that will push legal education in that direction. ...

I think we can be optimistic about legal education in the long run. That is not to dismiss as insignificant the considerable turmoil in the short run. Change is hard. Some law schools may close or merge. Some may shrink faster than attrition allows; others may gradually reduce or replace their faculty and staff to accommodate new approaches or smaller student bodies.

If things are going to be different in law schools, how different will we be? Let me suggest a possible future, in which there will be four kinds of law schools that look quite different from one another. I may be wrong about the particular types of schools that emerge but I am confident that the organizational structure, approach to education, and target markets for law schools will be more diverse in the future than they are today.

Academic model law schools. These schools will look like most law schools today: large faculties, many of whom spend considerable time on scholarship as well as teaching. High test scores and undergraduate grades will be needed to get into these schools and tuition will be relatively high, as this model is expensive to operate.  The top twenty schools will almost certainly all be in this group and law schools affiliated with large research universities may also be able to follow this model.  This is a pretty straightforward prediction: I doubt it is controversial to predict that good students will continue to be willing to pay for a Harvard degree.

Mass market schools. If you review 1930s AALS directories, you will find a number of law schools had quite small full time faculties, filling their schedule instead with practitioners who taught a class or two as adjuncts. There is a market for lawyers able to handle the legal matters of people of modest means; that can be met by training lawyers in a cost effective way to handle the relatively routine types of legal disputes in this market segment. Yet these disputes are often not susceptible to commoditization because the facts of the cases differ substantially even if the legal framework for resolving them is straightforward. ...

Specialty schools. Some schools will find markets in which to specialize and compete effectively. Faculties at these schools will become like faculty in universities generally: some will be “service” faculty, teaching the equivalent of general education requirements (like an English professor at an engineering school), while others will be specialists in the type of law on which the school is focused. These schools will deliver narrow but deep educations in complex areas of the law. ...

Alternative legal services schools. Most of the rest of the world treats legal education as an undergraduate degree. Few legal systems rely on anything like the heavily watered down version of the Socratic method in use in most U.S. law schools today. Alternative legal service providers need people with some legal training but also with a wide range of non-legal skills. Law schools can partner with their affiliated colleges of business, engineering, medicine, and so on to create professionals with the mix of skills and knowledge needed to address some growing needs. For example, the ever-growing market for compliance officers to cope with regulatory regimes like FATCA or the ACA requires people with knowledge of law, accounting, and some substantive financial (FATCA) or medical (ACA) knowledge. Part of the growing category of “JD advantage” jobs may evolve into a category of “something besides a JD required” jobs in such areas. Similarly, there are likely to be firms that need project managers who understand evidence but do not need constitutional law. Focusing on training professionals for such jobs is a likely niche. It may not be filled by any current market participants, however, as this is a major shift in emphasis.

What I have described should not surprise anyone looking at higher education outside legal education. We have top research universities (such as the Ivies) that fit the first model; non-Tier 1, large universities that fit the second; and niche market colleges that fit the third. The last category is somewhat analogous to some of the for-profit schools that focus on training people for specific careers. Predicting that legal education will look more like higher education generally seems like a reasonable approach to me. Just as universities appeal to different sectors of the higher education market, many law schools are likely to be forced to evolve into legal education service providers that no longer imitate the top tier schools. Schools with modest reputations are unlikely to thrive by pretending to be Harvard. Competition and its attendant evolution mean changes in all industries, including legal education. We will be better for it

Legal Education | Permalink


11. As a tenured professor, I will continue to get paid enormous sums of money until I retire, regardless of employment outcomes of my students, quality or impact of my scholarship, or teaching ability.

Posted by: armand | Apr 2, 2015 6:31:49 AM

LOL. Lower tuition costs! Hooray! You should be grateful that your costs will fall. Of course, You have a product that costs $55 k (from the Texas A&M law school website). It's value? Not $55 k/year. And it doesn't look like the law school is among the handful of law schools that have actually cut tuition.

Posted by: Rob | Apr 2, 2015 8:34:27 PM