David Barnhizer (Cleveland State), US Law Schools: Looking for Answers in All the Wrong Places:
On a very regular basis we see reports on the state of how many people are taking the LSAT, applying to law school, actually enrolling in law schools, comparing applicants’ LSAT and GPA credentials with students from previous years, as well as how law schools’ graduates fared in the job market. This latter category has become a bit more complex and slightly more honest, including paying attention to whether the jobs were subsidized by the law schools in an effort to improve the placement statistics, required a law degree and bar passage, or if an advantage was created for people who had received a law degree.
This entire process of “casting bones” to interpret whether law schools have weathered the storm of declining demand for their educational services is mainly a bunch of unproductive “navel gazing”. This is because it fails to look closely at what is happening in the world external to the parochial focus of law schools in terms of specific tiers of the legal profession, the dramatic and increasing shrinkage in jobs of many kinds — including law — alternative ways to obtain “law knowledge” and legal services, flat or declining wages over an extended period, the rise of the “gig” economy, and the aging of the American population and the significant financial and employment pressures under which Millennials are now functioning.
Added to these considerations is the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence systems and robotics [AI/robotics] not only for use by lawyers and law firms, but by businesses, governments and potential clients. Use of these technologies is eliminating human jobs, and therefore potential clients, in large numbers and the situation is projected to become far worse, as is discussed below. These are the factors most relevant to the demand for law schools’ educational services by applicants and for law school graduates by potential employers. Failure to understand this is why most people trying to understand what will be the future of American law schools are looking at the wrong things.
David Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that as the United States economy is being “hollowed out”: “New jobs are coming at the bottom of the economic pyramid, jobs in the middle are being lost to automation and outsourcing, and now job growth at the top is slowing because of automation. … Nowhere are these advances clearer than in the legal world.” As the middle class population shrinks and there is increasingly limited space at the top of the employment and wealth pyramids where do the displaced people go? An obvious answer is “down” the socio-economic scale.
Another answer is that they do not go to extremely expensive law schools that no longer provide a “ticket to ride” up the “status and reward ladder”. Far beyond the issue of “micro” trends of how many applicants take the LSAT, apply to US law schools, actually matriculate into those law schools, and receive decent paying traditional jobs after graduating that allow them to repay the mountain of debt accumulated during their educational process, are the “macro” questions of what is occurring in terms of the demand for legal services, the decaying “paying ability” of those seeking those services, and the creation of alternative means for delivering law knowledge and some legal services. This includes that there are ongoing inroads on traditional legal services being stimulated by Artificial Intelligence applications by which non-lawyers can obtain previously esoteric knowledge about law. A description of LegalZoom.com tellingly explains that it: “is an online legal technology company that helps its customers create an array of legal documents without having to necessarily hire a lawyer.”