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Too Many Law Schools?

Consider the existing law school as an institution, or as kind of community, and as faculty we are touched with the warm fuzzies.  I share many of those fuzzy thoughts, but my contrarian streak will out.  Law professors cannot construct or reconstruct legal education without accounting for its place in law and justice generally.  Do we have too many law schools, or the wrong kind altogether?

Our students rarely feel the communitarian fuzzies.  Consider this recent Chicago Tribune article on the salaries “commanded” by recent law graduates, on the debt they carry, and on the changing economics of the legal profession. (H/T Bill Henderson at Empirical Legal Studies):

Academic researchers believe change is coming to the profession. John Coates of Harvard Law School, for one, has a clear vision of how economics will reshape long-standing practices. He foresees the American Bar Association and state bar examiners coming under pressure to reduce the cost of law school by relaxing rules. That could mean accrediting online programs or allowing two-year degrees instead of the standard three.

Restrictions on practicing law without a license also will relax, Coates predicts, so paralegals can handle house closings, leases, simple contracts and wills. More legal work will be carried out at a discount offshore, as well. In the wealthy corporate sector, Coates foresees publicly held firms from England and Australia using their superior capital to challenge U.S. rivals.

That, in turn, will encourage a change in rules that limit the ownership of American law firms to lawyers.

Eventually, Coates says, the great divide in lawyer incomes will divide again, this time into three categories: The super-highly-paid, a middle tier of the highly paid and, by far the biggest group, everybody else.

None of these changes will come easily, he says, but inevitably the economics of the legal profession will trump its outmoded traditions. “The one thing I can guarantee: There will be a lot of fighting.”

So, when we talk about what kind of institution we want the law school to be, should we assume even the most basic of legal education’s current foundations? How about a more radical rethinking? Should we:

  • expand opportunities for legal education, making it cheaper and more accessible, so that fewer new lawyers earning mid-range salaries (and lower) are crushed by debt service? 
  • contract opportunities for legal education, pulling up the drawbridge and limiting the number of new lawyers, so that more new lawyers earn high salaries and are less likely to be crushed by debt service? We might cut the number of slots in entering classes or even pursue the unthinkable — get rid of excess capacity by terminating some law schools outright, perhaps even including some schools at the higher end of the pecking order.  Off-shored, out-sourced, and non-licensed para-legal “professionals” could handle the day-to-day servicing now performed by poorly paid lawyers.
  • more severely distinguish the teaching and scholarship functions of legal education, as suggested by Orly, but more traditionally: Locate the scholars in an academic department within the faculty of arts and sciences, and offer both undergraduate and graduate programs there.  The professional school could be spun off altogether to offer technical training for future practitioners.

These are thought-experiments for now, not real proposals.  The options are not necessarily mutually exclusive, so it’s fair to mix and match from what I’ve written, or add and subtract.   But by flagging the possibility that some law schools are tear-downs, not candidates for educational versions of This Old House, I want to highlight some of the raw tradeoffs that accompany any serious or even semi-serious approach to institutional change.  Consider not only the different impacts on access to professional education, on salaries and debt, and on access to justice generally, but also on the quality of lawyering, on job satisfaction among lawyers, on respect for law and lawyers throughout society, and on the character and quality of research and scholarship on law.  John Coates’s predictions resonate for me.  Do they portend the demise of the law school as we know it today?

6 thoughts on “Too Many Law Schools?”

  1. There’s no real reason to have over 190 law schools, all of which teach essentially the same thing, roughly the same way, at roughly the same price, especially when the price keeps creeping up. The debt loads for many law students is staggering, and despite the placement figures at the top of the USNWR rankings, most law graduates aren’t getting those exhorbitant salaries, so they are having a hard time servicing their (nondischargeable in bankruptcy) educational loans. At some point, the system will break. It’s really a question of whether there’s a controlled re-thinking of the problem (we here in Las Vegas have no problem doing planned implosions of creaky old buildings to make way for the new) or some sudden disaster that forces a change. Mike, I’ve been mulling over all of your proposals for quite some time now, and I think they deserve serious consideration.

  2. Isn’t this just a consumer education issue? In other words, a prospective student, fully informed, might happily sign up for law school knowing that he/she is destined for a “low paying” job.

    The problem I’m having is that it’s difficult to do valuations when there is a lottery effect–going in, most students will think they are going to get the jobs that only 10% (or less) will get, which distorts prospective economic assessments of a law degree’s value. Eric.

  3. Eric,

    The overvaluation problem is significant and pervasive enough that I think that characterizing the problem as consumer education doesn’t do it justice.

    In general I’ve come to describe these phenomena as “Hannah Montana problems,” after the crowd of parents who sued ticket brokers who bought Hannah Montana tickets using bots, then jacked up the prices of scalped tickets.

    What the characterization does for me is this:

    Sometimes, what appears to be a Hannah Montana problem is no problem at all. That’s my reaction to Hannah Montana fans; concert tickets are of marginal concern in social welfare terms; to me, Hannah Montana ticket scalping is Coase in action. (That’s easy for me to say; my children are too old to be HM fans.)

    Sometimes, a Hannah Montana problem exists at a middle level that can be solved in part via consumer education. And sometimes the amount of money involved and the amount of harm done means that education is not enough.

    Perhaps some of our colleagues who study behavioral economics could weigh in on this.


  4. Too many law schools? Three institutions in somewhat close proximity don’t appear to think so.

    Wilkes (Scranton-Wilkes-Barre), Binghamton and St John Fisher (Rochester) all are contemplating opening law schools.

    What is behind the sudden popularity in starting new law schools?

    John W

  5. John:
    Very simple…law schools remain cash cows for universities. Unlike medical, dental, and engineering schools that need lots of expensive equipment, you can run a law school fairly “efficiently;” pack 100+ high-tuition paying bodies in a huge lecture hall, park one professor in the front (and you have your pick of extremely sharp Harvard/Yale/Michigan etc. JD grads who are desperate to leave “biglaw” for the security and freedom of academia), and bingo, you are all set. Law libraries themselves are proving to be of minimal value, as much research takes place on-line anyway.
    The problem is that too, too many students are willing to gamble on their future by putting themselves in debt up to their eyeballs with relatively little chance of getting a high-paying job that permits them to pay these debts off in a reasonable manner (i.e., that permits them to pay rent, food, etc.).
    It really is a classic supply/demand issue…until a substantial number of individuals stop applying to law school, we aren’t going to see much change in the number of universities who look upon law schools as reliable income streams.

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