April 19, 2010
Minding Our Business Forum: Possible Law School Responses
Posted by Brett McDonnell

I'm hoping that Larry's analysis of the Death of Big Law is a bit too pessimistic, and that what we are facing for some time to come is more like the Sickly Old Age of Big Law.  But I suspect he's right on the basic trend and its consequences for law schools.  Two of the implications he sees strike me as being on a collision course.  First, the price of law school will need to come down, or at least stop going up so quickly.  Second, we need in law school to do more of the training that firms have done in the past.  The collision arises because effective skills training often requires a very low faculty/student ratio, and that is very expensive when the faculty involved are full time law professors.

How can law schools manage this collision?  I don't have anything close to a full answer.  But after three years of associate deaning at a school working on curricular reform, I can see at least three partial responses:  (1) greater use of adjuncts and externships, (2) distance education, and (3) a reduction (or at least a brake on increases) in faculty salaries (oh, the horror).

Greater use of adjuncts and externships:  Adjuncts are in many ways better than many full-time faculty (especially at highly-ranked schools) in providing more practical skills training.  And they are very cheap, at our school something like 1/100th of the cost per credit taught.  'Nuff said about how they can help manage the collision between teaching skills and bringing down costs.  There are clearly problems in identifying, training, and monitoring adjuncts, but those problems can be managed.  There are also ABA and AALS rules that eventually may get in the way.  Those rules may have to change.  Externships similarly shift some training to practitioners, and also raise monitoring questions.  A move like this, if taken far, in some ways represents a step back in the direction of the old apprenticeship model and away from the graduate school model.  Many full time faculty, and their cartel the AALS, are likely to fight that.  But economic realities will increasingly force the issue at many schools.

Distance education:  some courses can be taught online.  Insofar as these allow for many more students per faculty time spent on the course, they change the cost equation.  Not all law school courses can or should be taught this way.  But some can, and doing so will allow resources to be shifted to other courses that require live instruction.

Reduced salaries:  the decline of Big Law should affect both the demand and supply for law school faculty.  On the demand side, reduced revenue for law schools will reduce the ability of schools to pay for faculty.  On the supply side, a major reason for the high salaries that law faculty earn is opportunity costs--most faculty could be earning a lot more at a big law firm.  If those opportunity costs shrink with the decline of Big Law, that should make faculty available at a lower price.  Both the demand and supply shift point to a lower price for this particular commodity.  This analysis will not endear itself to many readers of this blog (the author is not pleased with it either), but it seems hard to avoid.

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