April 20, 2010
Minding Our Own Business: No Big Law, No Big Law Faculty Salary?
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

I've been skeptical about Larry's Death of Big Law point for two reasons: 1) Big Law seems a pretty resilient beast, and reports of its death may well be exaggerated, and 2) as I posted a while back, flagship state law schools like Georgia may well emerge the big winners from the death or dislocation of the Big Law model.  The WSJ Law Blog linked to Christine's post yesterday, and many comments amounted to: "Unless you go to a Top X law school, a law degree is just not worth the money."  Depending on your elitism quotient, X is a number between 3 and 14.  An unsurprising view, given the presumed readership of the WSJ Blog, but parochial.  Georgia graduates incur relatively little debt, get a decent education, and still have a pretty good shot at getting a job that will get them out of debt.  Fewer 2010 grads will wind up at Big Law, but our model was never built on that. 

So I was feeling pretty good about my place in the world.  Then I read Brett's provocative post.  More skills classes mean more adjunct hiring?  Check, already doing that here at Georgia.  My transactional skills are already 5 years out of date, and leveraging the expertise of enthusiastic alums has been key to our Business Law and Ethics Program.  Distance learning?  We're not doing that, but it's fine by me.  Reduced salaries...What? 

Brett posits that

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. 

I'm not sure I agree with either of Brett's premises.  As far as demand goes, students seem to be flocking to law schools to wait out the recession.  Long term he might be right, at least for schools that face higher ranked competition in their market space.  As far as supply goes, I'm skeptical that opportunity costs are what drive law faculty salaries. I think it has a lot more to do with the increased fluidity on the lateral market.  More legal scholars are moving schools, and moving earlier, and deans, keeping a wary eye on those pesky US News peer assessments, are willing to raise salaries to retain and recruit faculty. 

But that's just my gut feeling. And Brett, an associate dean, is  probably way more knowledgeable than I am, so maybe my salary is in jeopardy.  Furthermore, even Pollyannas like me understand that the depth of dean's pockets is a product of donations from Big Law and Big Law partners and associates, and that there's a whole lot less money sloshing around the system these days.  I guess I'll be holding onto my 12-year old cream-colored Caddy, for a few more years at least.

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