Monday, September 27, 2010

Law School Deans Discuss State Of Legal Education - ChicagoLawyer

I just happened to read an absolutely excellent article in the September issue of Chicago Lawyer entitled "Law School Deans Discuss The State Of Today's Legal Education."  The article is a panel discussion among the Deans of John Marshall Law School (Tier 4), Chicago Kent Law School (#80), University of Chicago Law School (#5), DePaul University Law School (#98), and Loyola Law School (#78).  Now, Chicago Lawyer is geared toward practicing attorneys rather than prospective law students, so the Deans have an opportunity to tone down their marketing (not off, but down).  By seeing how the Deans talk about the issues among themselves, you can really learn a lot about how they view themselves and how they relate to students - let's take a look at some insightful sections below.

The questions and some selections from the answers appear below.  I have replaced the names of the Deans with their respective law school for ease of understanding - especially the very unfortunately named Dean of the University of Chicago - Mr. Schill (Seriously - I am not making this up.)

As I discuss below, I'm going to try not to condemn the Deans - instead, we can use this as an opportunity to try to understand how the Deans make decisions and what is valuable to them.  Let's concentrate less on how things "out to be" and more on "how things are, so I can see how I fit in and what dangers are there for me."

1) Question - How has legal education changed over the last 20 years.
Loyola - "I think a big change in the last 20 years is that we're much more in a competitive marketplace for students, faculty, reputation and money and all of those things than when any of us went to law school.
DePaul -  "The driving force that was not in existence 10 or 20 years ago was the magazine, U.S. News & World Report , which in many ways is driving legal education in America.
John Marshall -  "All law schools are kind of in an arms race. Everybody's trying to do everything better. More faculty, more students. I mean, Loyola, John Marshall, and Kent, 25 years ago, we were all one-room schoolhouses. One building, basically. And now, we're all expanding. Our faculties have expanded quite a bit."

These comments can serve as a window into the world of a law school Dean - they feel that they are under constant pressure to expand and to grow - and that costs money.  Note that the concern is to make the school bigger and better - not to match the number of incoming students with the number of available jobs.  In fact, getting law students jobs really only matters as it impacts the ability to make future sales - and because all the other law schools are having a tough time selling, there is no reason for a law school to really focus on it - more on this later.
Also, to give credit where credit/blame where it is due, the Deans are pushing these initiatives because in a very real sense they are demanded by the student market.  That is, students get turned off by old facilities and are often attracted to attend a specific law school (make a purchase) by the appearance of the law school and any new bells and whistles that the law school can advertise.

I'll relate an actual experience I had when a visited a law school shortly after it was announced that the law school had received a $50M bequest.  I was talking to some students with regard to what the school should do with the money - one said that they school should replace the desks in the lecture halls - another called for a rebuilt student gathering area - a third called for a renovation to the library.  I mentioned that I was surprised that they would not want to apply it toward tuition to reduce the amount that they would have to pay.  I was then informed that they didn't really care about tuition because it was all loans anyway.  What the school could do to make their environment better right now was more important.  I was kind of flabbergasted.  I would certainly have wanted it to reduce my tuition if I were a law student.  I don't think that necessarily all of the law students agreed with the "spending plan", but it was clear that the majority did.

I don't think that the massive building and spending plans (and corresponding increase in tuition) that law schools have undertaken in the last couple of decades are a good idea - much less a sustainable idea.  But in some real ways I think it represents Deans dealing with increasing competition and giving the market what it seems to be demanding both by students and by USNews - even when that's not good for students in the long run.

2) Question - How has the economy changed the number of law school applicants? 
John Marshall: "We have been up 3 or 4 percent the last couple of years. There are reports that people are up 10, 15, 20 percent".
DePaul: "Strangely enough, jobs are hard to get, we're more expensive than ever, tuition keeps going up, but we had a record number of applications this year."
Loyola: "We were up 30 percent for reasons that I really can't explain. Applications have traditionally gone up in tough economic times. This time is consistent with that, although some schools have unusually large increases randomly."

Again, these comments serve to illustrate how a law school Dean thinks of their job.  They are just kind of doing their thing, marketing their school, and suddenly there are all these mass numbers of people knocking on their doors.  From their point of view, it's pretty random - it's just sales!  This year they had a better year for reasons that relate to the economy, but really aren't all that clear with regard to specific school.

I also note that University of Chicago did not comment about how much their applicant numbers are up, but it's likely more than 30%.  It seems like the increase in applicant numbers is proportional to the school's ranking.  There is a law school in Illinois ranked in the top 30 that had applications up about 40% this year.  I would imagine University of Chicago is higher than that.

So, from the point of view of the dean, they are not really trying to match their incoming class size with the number of legal jobs available.  That's not really in their job description.  They are selling education, not trying to limit their cash intake to optimize the employment chances of their students.  Prospective law students should be aware that this is how the game/system/business works - they are not out to make sure that you do well.

3) Question - This is in response to another question, but really it goes to whether law schools use scholarship dollars to "buy" law students - they do.
DePaul: "What's happened, too, is the competition for - and this again is magazine-driven - high LSATs and high grade averages. Of course, [University of] Chicago doesn't have to worry about that, but the rest of us do. You need more scholarship money. The trend seems to be to veering away from need scholarships to what is happily called merit scholarships, which, in fact, is the buying of students. That's where all of the schools are." (emphasis added)
Chicago: I think sometimes scholarships can be used as way to buy students. In other ways, it can just be thought of as ways to put together a group of intellectual stimulating, very able students and really create a class of people who are going to contribute a lot to discussion and to the school.

So from the Dean's point of view, giving you a scholarship is not about whether it is likely that you will get a job.  It's not about whether you are likely to be successful in the practice of law.  Instead, it's about getting you to enroll in their law school - so that they can raise their numbers - so that they are ranked higher - and more people will enroll in the law school next year.  In a very real way, by the time you enroll in the law school, you have already been "sold" and the attention shifts to the next generation of customers.

Again, note that there is never any mention of optimizing their class size with regard to the number of potential job openings.  Of course, to be fair, they might feel that it would be pretty "suicidal" for a law school to try to reduce its class size on its own - alternatively, it would be "brave" and "moral" and "the right thing to do" and "setting the ethical example that you complain that your students are somehow not learning while at the same time you set a terrible, terrible ethical example for them."   (*Sigh* And I was going to try not to judge!)

4) Question - What about jobs?
Chicago Kent:"There are fewer jobs at well-defined places, such as large firms. Large firms have cut hiring at least 50 percent in the past two years."
DePaul: "The market in the big firms is just closed."
John Marshall: I think when the economy picks up, law firms will begin hiring again. But I don't think they're going to be hiring in quite the same way they were, where the bigger firms would hire 30 to 40 second-year students and then make offers to those for the following year and continue to do that year after year. The stories I hear, a lot of the big firms are hiring contract lawyers at lower rates.  I think there's going to be a reset in the way law firms hire their new people, and we're not quite sure yet what that's going to look like. At least, I'm not sure.

There is a lot of other BS in the comments about "trying harder" and maybe "opening up your own shop", but if you listen closely, the Deans are actually being pretty honest about the market. "50 percent hiring cuts", the market being "closed" and other comments seem pretty accurate with regard to what a lot of people are running into right now.

Maybe we would prefer that the Deans eliminate the language about "lowering your sights" and "being more aggressive" and emphasize the dearth of opportunities more, but when a Dean says "The market in big firms is just closed", well then that's about as clear as you could get.
Of course, the relative level of truth might be more of a Midwestern thing.  One thing that I have noticed is that there is a lot of geographic variance in the amount of pressure that is thought to be appropriate when trying to induce people to go to law school.  I would imagine that the message that the Deans would be spouting in the New York area might not include the cautionary language that you see above.

In summary, Chicago Lawyer is an excellent, excellent magazine - I highly recommend their September issue which is their "Law School Issue", and I think all prospective law students should read it - and read it thoroughly and critically.  With regard to law school Deans, prospective law students need to know that their future is pretty much not a concern for the Deans.  The law school does not care that you may not find a job - or that the opportunities for you at this point are terrible.  They are in business to sell a service - legal education - and that's what they do.  Frankly, they are amazed that more and more potential law students are knocking on their door when it is such a bad deal for the law student - but they respond like anyone else that is selling a service: they sell more!

Prospective law students - please, please, please think long and hard before going to law school - even law school Deans think that the market for new lawyers is terrible!


  1. These guys are unbelievable

    First of all, how great is it that the Dean of Chicago's last name is "schill". Too perfect.

    Secondly, the John Marshall Dean's statement that 30-40 of students getting Big Firm jobs? Id like to see him back that statement up pre-recession at HIS school.

  2. Hi Dan,
    Yep, the name is very unfortunate. A guess a guy can't change his name, but I am a little surprised that whatever Board voted him in did not take into account the negative connotations. Maybe he's just that good? Maybe they figured they are the U of C, so they just don't care?

    With regard to the John Marshall Dean's comments - you are right that it would be a little odd if he were asserting that a single big firm hired 30-40 of his students pre-recession. However, I think that his comment is not necessarily limited to his students only - and there were big firms that did hire classes of 100+ pre-recession.

    Not to exonerate the Deans by any means - they really should be more focused on the welfare (jobs) of their students by matching admissions to availability. They are obviously aware that the available jobs have dried up, but they are not taking steps to matach their admissions to job availability. They may respond that it is not their job to do so - that students make their own decisions - and they are just running a business/school. Well, if they want to be a business, then that's OK - but then stop representing yourself as a not-for-profit/charity and stop pretending that you have student's best interests at heart.

  3. When I was at Cornell - the financial aid offer's name was Jane Death (no kidding - should have seen the writing on the wall there). She actually changed the spelling (added an 'e') so it would be pronounced differently.

  4. They dont pretend bc they don't have to

    When their school's existence and income is overwhelmingly a result of government guaranteed money they get immediately with barely any strings attached they should be subjected to the highest of honor codes and should NOT be able to use a caveat emptor or capitalistic/ business defense IMO

  5. And they should not be run as a business under the current scheme so to disagree with you it is NOT ok

  6. Dan - I think that we both agree that the caveat emptor/capitalistic/business defense is inappropriate for law school Deans to hide behind at this time.

    I actually agree with you that the current level of federal loan oversight would be inappropriate if the law schools announced themselves to be businesses rather than non-profits. My thinking would be that if the law schools announced themselves as for-profit businesses, then they would be subject to closer regulation, cost control, proof-of-result, and other scrutiny - like other for-profit government contractors.
    I think that we are on the same page that it is inappropriate for law schools to take lightly-regulated federal dollars under the guise that they are beneficient, while in essence operating in a highly capitalistic way.

    To my thinking, if they want to be charities, then they should act with greater concern for their students. Conversely, if they want to be business, then ok, but we as a society should review the availability of and process for bestowing student loan dollars on them. I actually think that we are pretty much on the same page here.