Paul L. Caron

Monday, October 26, 2015

Henderson Responds To New York Times Editorial On The Law School Crisis

NY Times Logo (2015)Following up on yesterday's post, NY Times: A Majority Of Law Schools Are Scamming Students And Taxpayers:  William Henderson (Indiana), Is There a Right Way to Respond to the "Law School Debt Crisis" Editorial?:

Amidst all the other newsworthy topics, the New York Times editorial board made law school debt the lead editorial for today's Sunday edition.  And the story line is not good.  ...

I don't think the typical member of the legal academy understands the precarious financial condition of legal education.  The precariousness exists on two levels:  (1) our financial fate is in the hands of the federal government rather than private markets; and (2) the Times editorial suggests that we have a serious appearance problem, which draws down the political capital needed to control our own destiny.  With the political winds so goes our budgets. 

I think it is important for the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) to take some decisive action in the very near future.  In this blog post, I explain where the money comes from to keep the law school doors open and why, as a consequence, we need to pay closer attention to the public image of legal education.  I then offer some unsolicited advice to the AALS leadership. 

(1) Who pays our bills?  

Over the last decade, the federal government has, as a practical matter, taken over the financing of higher ed, including legal education. ... The area in green is the volume of money that could disappear from law school budgets if the federal government imposed a hard limit on federally financed law school lending.


... (2) An appearance problem in the world of politics

I would bet a lot of money that law faculty have been emailing the Times editorial to one another, criticizing its lack of nuance.  But here is our problem.  We are not in a court where a judge will listen to our elegant presentation of facts and law.  Nor are we in the world of private markets where we can expect people to reliably follow their own economic self-interest.  We are in the realm of politics where sides get drawn based on appearance and political expediency.  To make matters worse, the legal academy just got lambasted by the paper of record on the left.

It is hard to argue that a cap on federal funding of legal education would be bad policy for students, the legal profession, taxpayers, or broader society. ...  For law schools, however, such a change would produce layoffs and pay reductions.  And that may be the fate of the luckier schools.   It is widely known that most law schools are running deficits.  Central universities are looking for ways to wait out the storm.  But the cliff-like quality of a federal cap on law school lending would call the question of how much support is too much.  

What's the solution?

Legal education has a cost problem, but so does the entire higher ed establishment. Here is my unsolicited advice.

The leadership of the AALS needs to take a very strong public position that the trend lines plaguing higher ed need to be reversed.  This is not risky because it is so painfully obvious.  The AALS should then, in conjunction with the ABA, send a very public delegation to the Dept of Education [to help craft a solution]. ... The only drawback is that it won't be the status quo that we'd instinctively like to preserve.

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@ Jason Yackee,

You have neglected to mention the giant Wooly Mammoth of cost-cutting targets: RESEARCH! Legal research in the academy, outside of the top 14 schools, should be considered an extracurricular activity. Instead, professors should teach four classes, or 16 credit hours, per semester. The faculty could be cut in half, and most of the valuable programming spared. These are the types of difficult changes that law schools must now consider.

Posted by: JM | Oct 27, 2015 6:46:37 AM

Of course, the "cost containment" that is surely necessary at many law schools (even many of those in the Top 50) cuts against the current vogue for more "experiential" learning based upon small-enrollment clinics. The best way to cut costs--really, the only way, once you have reached the point of ending meals at faculty talks, gotten rid of faculty secretaries, taken away the office coffee service, is to teach more students with fewer faculty. This necessarily means less "personal" attention to students, and fewer opportunities for skills training. Whether this would be good or bad is debatable, but it is, in my view, essential to recognize that "cost containment" is not just about cutting "fat". It has implications for the kinds of programming law schools are able to offer.

Posted by: Jason Yackee | Oct 27, 2015 6:00:56 AM