I have been a dean at two schools for a total of 11 years, recently
completed six years on the ABA Section of Legal Education’s Standards
Review Committee, and currently serve on the Task Force on the Future of
Legal Education established by the ABA President. ...
school applications have plummeted. Enrollment is going down, too,
although at a slower pace. In 2010 there were approximately 52,000 first year law students. In the fall of 2013, that number is likely to be around 40,000.
In my view, 52,000 is far too many law students and even 40,000 is
too many. The “right” number of law students must surely be related to
the job market. We are in a profound restructing of the legal services
market, as Bill Henderson and others have pursuasively argued.
Projections based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that there
will be approximately 20,000-25,000 jobs per year for lawyers in the
coming decade. Of course, as Yogi Berra (allegedly) said, “Predictions
are very hard, especially about the future.” Perhaps, as has happened
in the past, predictions of the decline of lawyers will prove to be
overstated. Still, the BLS data is the best evidence we have, so we
must take it seriously. ...
In the end, I have little doubt that if there were an Emperor of
Legal Education, he or she would order schools to enroll fewer
students. My best guess is that the target would be 35,000 students, a
drop of about 33% from 2010. Others, I’m sure, would place the number
For an individual school, the decision about whether, when, and by
how much to downsize is a complicated one. Downsizing is painful.
Because almost all of our budgets are personnel, enrolling fewer
students means pay cuts, layoffs or other difficult steps. There has to
be a compelling rationale.
It is tempting to say that we are downsizing because it is the
morally right thing to do, but that would not be honest. Any benefit to
society or even to individual students from a single school’s
downsizing will likely be mostly symbolic. ...
So why are we, and so many law schools, downsizing? Candidly, it has
a lot to do with rankings. No one likes to see their median LSAT’s
and GPA’s decline, and we worry that if they do, we may fall in the
rankings. With rapidly declining applications, most of us are
experiencing drops in the average credentials of our students. In an
effort to minimize that decline, and out of concern about our relative
standing if other schools succeed in holding their credentials steady by
getting smaller, we decide to downsize.
A great deal of what is wrong with legal education is a result of the
impact of U.S. News & World Reports and our complicity in playing
that game. I will have more to say about U.S. News and law school
behavior in future posts. For now, I note the irony that in this
crisis, U.S. News actually provides a strong incentive for us to do
something that ought to be done, but that we would otherwise have great
trouble doing. The Emperor of Legal Education would be happy.