The Withering Away of Law Schools

Even Emory, a fairly elite law school, may be part of a “death spiral” from which few law schools will escape.  Emory Law professor Dorothy A. Brown acknowledged that in a Washington Post article yesterday. Let me add to her observations from my vantage point as a professor of political science for over thirty-five years.  I’ve been watching students apply for law school, flourish there, and advance (or not) in their legal careers for most of my long adult life.

Well, here’s what going on right now: The legal profession is rapidly downsizing. Outsourcing and technology have turned it mostly into a herd of independent contractors without security or benefits. The days when any talented and reasonably conscientious student can move almost seamlessly from the residential liberal arts college to the law school and then to a secure and lucrative position in a firm are over. Those were really good days for the political science major, and for what I still think is the truthful view that the best route to political leadership–or any position of prominence in one’s community–is that combination of liberal and professional education.

More Disruptive Innovation

Partners of the elite firms are richer than ever, having figured out that they can flourish with (many) fewer people on their permanent payroll. There’s has been a jobless recovery–or, more precisely, partly fueled by the creative destruction of career positions that will never be restored.  That process of disruptive innovation is far from over. More legal work than ever is been done by lawyers piecemeal and for a (typically dropping) price.

Things are no better, and soon surely worse, for the profession of law professor. The low teaching loads and luxury perks of law professors has been premised, in part, on the high market value of  talented legal scholars and, more ridiculously, on the great value of their publications. There’s little real evidence that most of what’s found in amateurish, student-run law journals has any significant impact on the real legal marketplace of ideas. The practice of indulging law professors with astoundingly low teaching loads and summer research money to fake being on the cutting edge deserves to disappear.  I’m not talking here about the top research professors at our best law schools; it’s easy to show that there’s an actual market–in the worlds of both ideas and money–for what they know.  But at this point there’s little reason to pay most law professors much more or have them teach less than unremarakble undergraduate professors who attract no research money to their institutions.

Law school, after all, has been–except at the most elite level–pretty much a trade school.  And it will become more so as law school curricula are streamlined with efficiency and productivity in mind.

Well, you say, at least tenured law professors can’t be fired. Well, they can, if their school goes out of business or encounters really serious financial difficulty.  That means lots of them, in fact, will be fired.

The struggle is ferocious for the scarce resource of the college grad willing to risk time and especially treasure for uninspirational and unevenly delivered education that’s unlikely to pay off. The good news for students: It’s easier and suddenly a lot cheaper (with undergrad style financial aid having suddenly become the norm) to go to law school. Lots of students with less than stellar LSAT scores from my school are getting to go to decent law schools for free and even being given attractive discounts from elite schools, such as Emory, that wouldn’t have given them a second look even five years ago.

Easier Admissions

Good news:  The law school admission process ain’t scary any more.  The loans that constrain choice after graduation no longer need be all that huge. The bad news: For most grads there won’t be any lucrative and secure options.

Bottom lines: Lots of low-ranked law schools are going to close and even the good ones will have to become much more sensitive to the real needs of consumers. The working conditions for law professors everywhere gets worse. The market will, in this case, quickly and effectively sort things out, because the “home institutions” of most law schools won’t do all that much to subsidize them for very long. Those institutions have tolerated the self-indulgent quirkiness of law schools mainly because they’ve been cash cows. No longer.

The “liberal arts”–beginning with the political science major–take another hit, although it will still remain the case that the best route to political leadership will be the one followed by both Obama and Romney. It’s easy to advise undergraduate majors in political science to choose cheaper (often comped) technical programs leading to an MBA, MPA, MPH, and so forth. The better programs offering such degrees sometimes have solid placement records, and they are certainly better for many students.  But there’s no denying they lack the breadth and access to the opportunities associated with political life.

At this point, it is probably no more risky to pursue even a Ph.D in political philosophy or “regular philosophy” or history or whatever. Typically talented and accomplished students have to borrow little to nothing–at least if they don’t have a family and are very frugal–to flourish in said programs. The career prospects in a world where liberal education is disappearing, tenure has no future,  political correctness and techno-vocationalism are crowding out everything else, might not be all that much worse than that for most law students today.  That is, pretty bleepin’ bad.

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

9 thoughts on “The Withering Away of Law Schools

  1. I happen to be a mid-1980’s grad of Emory Law. I didn’t think the program all that and a bag of chips while attending, nor while living in Atlanta for a dozen years post-graduation. Then I moved to South Florida and began my exposure to the universe of “unranked” law schools.

    Every year schools I never heard of before relocating like Nova, St. Thomas, et. al., pump out hundreds of J.D.’s who as a practical matter can’t get a job outside of the relevant county, much less outside of Florida. If law schools are perceived as prettied up trade schools, look towards schools that will pretty much accept anyone who applies, had a “B-” or better average as an undergrad, commensurate LSAT’s, and can pay.

    If the ABA wants to try and help remedy a very bad situation, it can start by pulling credentials from every school not ranked in the top 150. We don’t even need 150 law schools, much less 250!

  2. Some of us who went to law school after serving in Viet Nam – to acquire a tool box as you suggest – viewed the law professors as pompous fools. Most of the courses were useless. Purportedly teaching people how to think was a waste of time (and money) too. The apprenticeship system of years gone by was just as good or better. The law journals are vanity projects. The most important courses in law school were criminal procedure and civil procedure.

    1. We were probably in law school about the same time — for me, 1974-77. It took me some years (and comprehension of public choice theory in economics) before I grasped the crucial point about law school. It isn’t designed to teach essential skills (which could be done at least as well elsewhere in less time), but instead to limit the number of people who could work in the legal field, while at the same time creating a lot of needless jobs for professors and administrators.

      1. Well, that limited number thing hasn’t worked out very well lately. How does your theory explain the proliferation of law schools over the last couple of decades? Still, obviously there’s some truth to what you say.

  3. In trade schools, students actually learned a trade — carpentry, welding, and so on. In law school, students learn very little that is actually essential to doing the work of an attorney, and what they do learn that is essential, such as how to do legal research and how to write briefs, could just as well be learned on the job. Law school used to attract relatively few of the nation’s lawyers — go back a century and most had entered the profession as apprentices. Clarence Darrow was one of them. Then, in the 1920s, the ABA decided to use law school as a barrier to entry and got most states to enact laws stating that you couldn’t take the bar exam without first graduating from an ABA accredited school. Our model of legal education — three years in an accredited law school — is an entirely artificial development designed to limit entry into the field.

  4. What you describe concerning the legal profession sounds a lot like the low-paid, piece work done by adjunct professors–the job that most PhDs in the liberal arts can expect to get now and in the foreseeable future.

  5. Hey Professor. I’m a BA in polisci/geography and JD from a third tier toilet law school. I think political science is a joke major to be brutally honest, but in conjunction with something else (accounting, foreign language, information systems, etc…) it can lead to some pretty interesting jobs. Those are the combinations of liberal education and skills that lead somewhere. My polisci/geography combo landed me a low-end but promising job in a municipal planning and zoning office, which I turned down to go to law school.

    Law school ruined me; I’m too inexperienced, with a degree too lacking in prestige, to get a real job in law, and too over-credentialed to get on any other career track. So, I work in a factory.

    Thank you for doing your part to spread the word about the law scam, and please encourage your students to pick up a technical minor.

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