A hot topic at law schools these days is whether the legal education business model is sustainable. Over at Balkinization, Brian Tamanaha suggests that law schools may be scamming students by taking advantage of students' unrealistic job expectations to get them to pay sky-high prices. An article by Daniel Theis (a student) in the latest Journal of Legal Education sounds the same theme. One of my own colleagues gave us a talk on the subject recently.
A common theme to the argument is that lawyers face permanent, structural changes in the market for their services. Clients, it is said, are no longer willing to pay top dollar for work by junior associates that really amounts to providing the training for these starting lawyers. Therefore, law firms can no longer afford to hire legions of juniors. High-salaried starting jobs at big law firms will become scarcer, and students will no longer be will to pay big bucks for an increasingly small chance at these jobs. In response, the argument goes, law schools will have to figure out how to deliver legal education at much lower cost (through greater use of adjuncts, Internet learning, etc.). There will also be a premium on skills and clinical education that will permit students to graduate ready for practice, and a de-emphasis on scholarship and other professorial activities that don't directly contribute to students' education.
It's always important to keep an eye on large-scale trends and to consider ways to improve. Law schools should take a hard look at trends in the legal world and consider whether they need to innovate. But I am somewhat skeptical about some of the changes that critics claim are inevitable.
First of all, it's not yet clear whether there really is a permanent, structural change coming in the provision of legal services or whether things will go back to their old patterns if the economy cyclically improves. But in addition, I've been hearing for at least a decade that the absurd cost structure of law schools can't possibly be sustained in the face of technological change. In the future, I've been hearing for a long time, a small number of superstars in each field will teach all the classes over the Internet, and the rest of us professors will be lower-paid, glorified TAs, who will grade the exams while our students watch the superstar teachers online.
I'm not saying this could never happen, but it hasn't happened yet. What all of these suggestions overlook, I would say, is something important about what law students are buying with their tuition dollars. Students are buying an education, but they are also buying the reputational value of their degree. That reputational value is very important.
If we professors abandoned every activity we engage in other than teaching, we could probably double the number of classes we teach. Then the school could fire half the faculty and deliver legal education at much lower cost. We could lower the cost still more if we taught everything over the Internet -- perhaps using faculty from other schools, as in the superstar model.
But what would happen to our reputation? A school like GW could probably coast on its prior reputation for five or ten years, but eventually the rest of the academy would notice that we weren't producing anything in the scholarship department, and our reputation would take a big dive, and with it the value of our students' degrees. That is why students have an interest in the scholarly production of their faculty. And as to Internet law schools, well, they do exist, but I haven't heard that their graduates are in much demand.
So I think that those forecasting big changes need to take more account of what schools need to do to invest in the reputational value of their students' degrees. I could imagine more change taking place at schools that aren't in the top 100 -- where the students are relying more on their moxie than on the reputational value of their degree to get jobs anyway. I'm not saying change isn't in our future, but I see an important counterweight that needs to be considered. Schools can't totally change the way they do business without considering what it will do to their reputations.
One change I would support, though, is fuller disclosure. Law schools should publish real information about their students' job statistics. Not just the bilge that is reported to U.S. News, but real information. If students are going to law school with the idea of getting a high-paying corporate job, they should be able to determine what their chances really are. Then they could make a more intelligent decision before they lay out their big tuition bucks.