Dramatic Need for Change in the Legal Education Industry

In my last blog, “Money Makes Things Happen: What is Causing the Change in Law Schools,” I described how market forces are affecting law schools. Those market forces are tightening the hangman’s noose on law schools. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reported in October that the number of law school applicants dropped 12.3% from 2012. Total applications took a similar hit and dropped 17.9% compared to last year. In addition, Professor Paul Campos of the University of Colorado reported in his blog “Lawyers, Guns & Money” that approximately eighty percent to eighty-five percent of law schools are currently running on operating deficits. Campos says, “Since 2010, first-year law-school enrollment is down nearly 25 percent and tuition revenue is down by about 15 percent in real terms.” He goes on to state that costs have not declined in a similar fashion, resulting in the operational deficits. 

With this new information, it is irrefutable that law schools must adapt or die. The real questions are (1) will a particular law school adapt or die and (2) if a law school adapts, how will it adapt. In the following section I will address question number two and describe a few of the larger scale ideas floating around on how to change law schools.

  1. Dissolving or Reforming the ABA: This isperhaps the most sweeping reformation idea out there. The argument put forth in support of this action is that because the ABA over regulates the law school industry through accreditation requirements, the law school industry has been hampered from adapting to market changes. I think reforming the ABA accreditation requirements is a very real possibility and will allow law schools the ability to adapt to changes in the market. I do not think dissolving the ABA is a good idea because its regulation of lawyers greatly benefits our profession. The ABA’s regulation of lawyers allows clients to bestow an incredible amount of trust and confidence in us as lawyers. Reform the ABA accreditation standards, but keep the ABA.  The other critique of this course of action is that it does nothing right away to alleviate the glut of new lawyers. 
  2. Dissolving Third Tier Law Schools: This would provide immediate relief to the problem of more lawyers being produced than there are jobs for. In addition, demand for the remaining law schools would immediately pick up, perhaps alleviating some of the budget problems discussed below. The problem of how this would be accomplished is perhaps insurmountable. The ABA certainly doesn’t possess the power to just simply “dissolve” a law school. If the free market supports a third tier law (a problem that might work itself out if the budget predictions of Campos are to be believed and given time) school than there are no straightforward ways to end the law school. 
  3. Dis-enrollment of the Bottom Third of 1L’s: One suggestion is that after first year grades are received, some of the third and second tier law schools dis-enroll the bottom third to quarter of students. Some schools, like John Marshall, already have practiced this. This addresses some of the problems of lawyer over production, but would have to be practiced nationwide to address the scale of lawyer over production. One problem is who would mandate and enforce this practice? If too many schools practiced this there would be a weird “race to the bottom” situation in which students began applying to lower ranking schools to avoid the risk of dis-enrollment in higher ranking schools. 
  4. Shortening Law School: This is the most likely change to occur. Earlier this year President Obama spoke out in favor of shortening law school to two years. Even some in the ABA have spoken favorably about this change. The immediate impact is less student debt for a law school graduate. But does this really address the problem of too many lawyers? I like this change and I think it is about time (ABA has discussed this since the 70’s), but I don’t see this addressing the core problem of too many law schools graduating too many lawyers.

I hope that the sheer scope of some of these actions drives home the point that law schools are on the precipice of change. The very fact that some of these actions are being debated shows the seriousness of the challenges facing the legal education industry. This coming change will be enormous in scope and unavoidable. Eventually you adapt or die, and I’m not sure which one law schools are going to choose.


The author is a current student in the DePaul Housing and Community Development Legal Clinic.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the opinions of the Clinic, the law school or the University.