(1) Law schools cannot self-terminate.
I suppose it’s safe to say that when NYLS dean Richard Matasar stepped down, I was easier on him than David Segal is in today’s NYT piece, “Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!” My personal opinion that I realized after I published my piece is that if you want to be a reformer who acts against your own interests, you must show some noblesse oblige. That means you do not criticize your peers’ practices while making half a million dollars off your students’ debt. You take a voluntary pay cut to show that you are serious, and you make enrollment cuts like Albany Law School supposedly did over the last decade. If you get ousted, you go back to teaching. At some point one must be willing to lose for one’s principles. Matasar’s ineffectualness/perceived hypocrisy never surprised or shocked me. To me it’s obvious that non-Ivy League law schools have no hope of internal reform without losing their place in the U.S. News rankings and by consequence access to high LSAT-scoring applicants, for they should realize by now that the legal education system has over-expanded and will certainly contract. If they’re not going to make symbolic gestures personally, reformers at lower status law schools might as well save their breath and tell the board of trustees that it’s time to close up shop.
(2) Demand for legal education and demand for lawyers is not the same thing. One must fall.
[T]here’s no business like the business of law school. The basic rules of a market economy — even golden oldies, like a link between supply and demand — just don’t apply. Legal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.
It should be clear: demand for lawyers is separate from demand for law degrees, and the ABA’s goal of law as an elite profession contradicts its concurrent goal of law as a democratic profession open to the masses (especially minorities, which is the ABA’s biggest insecurity). That’s the basic problem, and as J-Dog opined before taking a blogging break, the irreconcilable conflict entails the solution: Either:
(a) A Gorbechev figure takes over at the ABA and initiates law school accreditation perestroika that circumvents antitrust concerns: minimum LSAT score requirements, mandatory experience in a legal position, or mandatory undergraduate course streams. Such reforms would smash the legal education system, and enrollments would fall to what they were in the 1960s. Law remains a selective, elite profession.
(b) Water down legal education requirements (especially the costly wasteful ones) to the point that nearly anyone can get a law license provided they meet certain minimum criteria. Law becomes a democratic profession.
Until some kind of formal change is adopted, expect more legal education volatility: wary applicants, warier bondholders, and defiant law school behavior (like Vermont’s increasing its tuition and LL.M. students to compensate for declining JD enrollment).