I received the privilege of discussing the state of legal education with a law school dean—the one inhabiting my mind. He quite congenially accepted me into his office during finals. Here’s the conversation in dramatic form, with illustrations, naturally.
[Sound of door knocks]
Dean: Come in!
[LSTB (I go by that in the legalblogosphere, if you didn’t know. It’s far easier than writing my full name) peers inside and enters.]
Dean: Sit! Sit!
LSTB, smiling: Thanks.
[Dean’s office is what you’d expect: Some law books fill the shelves—no reporters, thank God—a generic wooden desk with a computer terminal facing the Dean at an angle occupies most of the room. Two four-legged metal chairs are there too. One is next to the door with books and papers piled on it, the other faces the desk. Dean’s chair is a black leather office chair that looks comfortable, though its user rarely leans against the backrest, preferring to hunch over his desk reading something or typing on the keyboard. LSTB can tell by the whitish-blue glow from the terminal that the Dean was looking at some word-processing document, though from his angle he can’t tell what kind. Dean had been on a break since before LSTB walked in. He is now peeling a savory clementine, part of his lunch. LSTB sits at the open chair before the desk. He instantly feels awkward. Neither knows how to begin the conversation.]
Dean: Okay…So~ you wanted to~ discuss the future of legal education?
LSTB, flatly: Yeah.
Dean: Where to begin? [He inhales.] Well?
LSTB: Yeah, um. So, it’s pretty clear that the American legal education system is facing challenges- [LSTB can be a little too non-confrontational at times.]
Dean, interrupting: That’s putting it mildly.
LSTB, pausing and restarting (Seriously folks, don’t interrupt LSTB): It’s pretty clear there’s a tuition bubble. Law schools keep raising prices well above inflation while the legal services market is contracting. Calls for transparency, that is, transforming the legal education system from one of inputs (LSAT, GPA) to outputs (that’s…job outcomes) are growing. What’re your thoughts?
Dean: I’d love it if the economy were better. I also think transparency is something we should move towards. [Dean clumsily slips a few clementine segments into his mouth at once.]
LSTB, thinking he’s moving in for the kill: Yet your school supplied no employment data to Law School Transparency.
Dean, masticating juicily: Nope. Nor are we obligated to.
LSTB, slightly flummoxed: Yeah, but- How can you say you’re in favor of transparency and not be transparent.
Dean: Transparency doesn’t benefit any one law school. [Dean wipes his mouth] You don’t look surprised, why not?
LSTB: Any one law school that discloses its poor job numbers would get fewer new applicants, the school would have to restructure but not before there was a run on the law school.
Dean: Precisely. The education we sell isn’t just classes, as you well may know. The school’s name on the diploma signals a quality standard to employers and the public. If we retrench in any way, whether by reducing enrollment, tuition, and compensation, it tells the market that our school was overreaching all along and ruins its reputation. You finished law school nearly three years ago; how would you feel—to say nothing of your subsequent employers—about the value of your legal education if your law school reduced its “ecological footprint” as you suggest would happen? [It didn’t. It so~ didn’t. –Ed.]
LSTB: It would still be the right thing to do.
Dean: I can look at this in terms of morality too, Matthew. Transparency isn’t fair to law schools—Let me finish!—for a few reasons. First, law schools aren’t responsible for zero job growth since the Clinton administration, nor did they cause the housing bubble, which then popped. The reason recent grads aren’t doing well is that for every three hundred jobs lost, theoretically on average one belonged to an attorney. I can’t change that. I would if I could, but that’s a problem for your legislators, not me. What transparency does is punish law schools for circumstances beyond their control. [Dean stuffs another clump of clementine segments into his mouth.]
LSTB: Hold on a second. I see why a law school would be more willing to report its employment outcomes in times of plenty, but I disagree with your definition of “fairness.” Fairness requires law schools to take a hit in the economy the same as everyone else.
Dean: Okay, [Dean swallows] even so, assuming there’s an optimal number of law schools, it stands to reason that the number of unemployed graduates would appear higher during recessions and lower during booms. We’d expect dissatisfaction with the legal education system in times of need.
LSTB, sharper than usual: “Optimal number” of law schools? Are you suggesting the profession somehow regulate the number of lawyers produced per year the way other professions do?
Dean: You’re clever Matthew. Let me get to my second point about why transparency isn’t fair to law schools: No one law school is totally responsible for the tuition bubble and the oversupply problem. The case may be made that some are worse than others though.
LSTB: So you think you’re trapped in a collective action problem?
Dean: Exactly. Even if I accept the facts as you’ve laid them out, transparency creates a free-for-all standard for regulating the number of juris doctors conferred annually.
LSTB: But it’s market-based. You said yourself that reputation—the name on the diploma—matters, isn’t that a reasonable standard if what you’re selling is legal education?
Dean: Why should reputation be the sole standard? Sure, the oldest law schools that sit in US News’ top tier have the best argument for continued existence, but there are exceptions- I should add that right now we have no idea whether post-bubble law schools would close or consolidate, how many and where, and what the cheapest, barebones ABA-accredited law school would look like, but let’s assume we’re dealing with closures- For instance, New York City has eight law schools within its five boroughs. Shouldn’t one of those close before a US News third tier law school in a small state does, assuming US News the best standard? What about public schools? Shouldn’t they receive special privilege to exist since they’re (or were at one time) state supported? Should UMass fall because it’s a recent public law school and just because Northeastern graduates can’t find jobs? Clementine?
WILL DEAN CORNER LSTB IN A GAME OF WITS OVER THE FUTURE OF LEGAL EDUCATION? WILL LSTB ACCEPT THE CLEMENTINE SEGMENT?
TO BE CONTINUED…