Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"The Coming Crash in Legal Education: How We Got Here, and Where We Go Now"

A new paper by Prof. Richard Bourne of the University of Baltimore. Bourne has been teaching for over 30 years, following five years in practice and time as a teaching fellow at Harvard. I find the reflections of long time participants in legal education to be useful inputs in evaluating how things have changed. This is an interesting paper with much to offer.

The abstract:

This paper will first track the ways in which the legal services market has grown and changed over the past forty years. It will then track the major changes that have attended legal education during the same period and the increasing dependence of the legal education industry on student debt. The paper will then explore why, at long last, the boom-times may have run their course and why, at some point, painful changes will likely occur. Though they cannot be described in detail, the author will attempt to outline the likely nature of the changes that will occur. Finally, the paper will briefly explore how the predicted reckoning may yet lead to an improvement in the marketing of legal services and an enhanced role for law schools in preparing new attorneys for the new bar they will be joining.

There's quite a bit of provocative stuff in here (on the chopping block are clinics, faculty scholarship, "law and.." courses, merit scholarships, and light course loads!) but also the traditional laments about U.S. News

If law schools could somehow eliminate or seriously weaken the impact of U.S. News rankings they could begin to cut back in a big way on many of the marketing costs that currently burden legal education. 

It isn't a "ruinous U.S. News sweepstakes" that drives the cost structure of legal education. Brochures and other marketing measures are a tiny fraction of even a single entry level professor's salary. The law school cost structure is largely salaries. I do agree with Bourne (especially since he cites Bill's and my work on this point) that competition for rankings has shifted financial aid to merit aid and away from need based aid, with deleterious consequences for the profession, legal education, and general social mobility.

But, as Bill and I have written elsewhere, if law schools released more useful data for students to use and facilitated such comparisons, U.S. News would be less important. It is important precisely because law schools don't make it easy to compare across schools while applicants making massive investments in education desperately want to compare their options. Fill that need with something better than the current rankings and the U.S. News problem will solve itself.

Bourne notes in his conclusion,"The time has come to stop pursuing the ephemeral benefits of prestige, simply for the sake of prestige, and to deliver more in the way of value."  That's much more important than fussing about U.S. News. But how to do that? A footnote at the end of Bourne's paper notes Alfred Z. Reed's thoughtful and provocative 1921 report, Training for the Public Profession of the Law and its argument for a wide range of legal training, producing different kinds of lawyers licensed to do different things. As Bourne notes Reed's report "was rejected as heretical by the organized bar." Maybe that's where to start the discussion.

[Posted by Andy Morriss]


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