November 10, 2009
Death of "Big Law School'?
Posted by Erik Gerding

Larry Ribstein has been writing and blogging up a storm about the "Death of Big Law." Larry makes a convincing case that the current economic crisis is not just a blip for law firms with everything returning to normal soon. Assuming that large law frims cannot deal with the structural problems Larry outlines and that the decline of big law is long term, what would that mean for legal education?

It would likely mean the end of the law school boom - with its expanding law faculties and the bumper crop of new law schools. Like it or not, the business model (I hate applying that term to legal education, but can't think of another one) of many law schools is heavily dependent on students getting high paying law firm jobs to pay off high law school tuition. Law firms are also prime benefactors of law school endowments. Without corporate law consuming law school graduates by the dozens, law school will face massive economic pressure.

On the one hand, these pressures will push law schools to improve the training of law graduates so that they are ready on "day one." Helping students in a tougher economic market supports the Carnegie/ABA best practices reforms that have been discussed so much.

But the changing economics of legal education will also cut the other way. The Best Practices model is expensive, and with tighter budgets law schools will also face pressures to move in the direction of the traditional "stack-em and pack-em" model of large classes. (Creative law professors may find ways to balance these pressures - for example many trial advocacy classes involve both a law professor and a roster of practitioner adjucts. Therese Maynard and Dana Warren have adapted this model to teaching transactional law to classes of 60+ at Loyola-LA.)

Law teaching is likely to become a lot less genteel too. Without law firm largesse, law schools will no longer be insulated from many of the pressures felt by other academic units on campus. Expect greater use of adjunct faculty and graduate students to teach (with VAPs morphing from their original role as professor training to filling curricular holes in a faculty in a cheap, "temporary" way).

Expect a greater push by administrations for faculty to fund part of their salary with grants. This means greater power to the few grant-making organizations that focus on law (like the Kaufman foundation) to shape legal discourse. Industry groups may also fund research to a greater extent with all the attendant potential for intellectual compromise. Will law schools look increasingly hierarchical like labs in the hard sciences or universities in Europe? Ask a junior researcher in a science lab on campus what their professional life is like.

Expect a greater disparity among the tiers of law schools with even more intense pressure on deans to prevent their law school from falling off a given tier. It is hard to see how many law schools will be able to sustain their current tuition rates given the job prospects of their graduates.

Many of these changes may be inevitable. But law faculties need to start thinking about them in a serious way. Some are already ahead of the curve. I had a really stimulating conversation with Karl Okamoto in June on many of these issues. He has clearly given a lot of thought to this as he moved from practice to helping build Drexel's business law program (news from Karl in a subsequent post).

A few traps for faculties lurk. First, how do we think about the business model of legal education without completely transforming education into a business? Second, if we all care about consumer protection, how do we make sure that applicants to law schools apply with clear eyes towards the professional prospects that await them rather than over-optimism and romanticism? Like many of you, I have problems with U.S. News rankings, but the solution is not less information (or less competition for students), but better metrics and better disclosure.

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