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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Fewer law schools or fewer students per school?

As legal education shrinks, should we have fewer law schools or fewer students per school?  Right now, I think the policies in place favor fewer students per law school: the ABA is a pretty weak filter, both for new schools and existing schools; U.S. News rankings favor smaller class sizes and better scores; and there's no real market for firm control and consolidation, as Stephen Bainbridge discussed.  But there are exceptions -- the incentives to pull in transfer students, for example, favor the "fewer schools" approach, as does the growing trend toward a standard, national bar exam.  I haven't seen much policy debate specifically on this question, but it comes up all over the place as we're dealing with the downsizing.

Posted by Matt Bodie on February 4, 2015 at 01:55 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


Obviously a belated response, but it seems like staffing levels will decrease as well. see, e.g., http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150317/PC16/150319393

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Mar 18, 2015 10:04:31 AM

Obviously a belated response, but it seems like staffing levels will decrease as well. see, e.g., http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150317/PC16/150319393

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Mar 18, 2015 10:04:29 AM

Genuinely curious, does the Bruckner analysis extend to the question of similar faculty staffing levels or reduced levels, i.e., if you have fewer students does that necessarily imply fewer professors? Or, do fewer students still need similar number of professors and can law schools afford those professor with fewer students?

Posted by: Anon | Feb 10, 2015 9:18:35 PM

Personally, I think that we are likely to end up with a similar number of law schools enrolling smaller classes. I recently dug into Thomas Jefferson School of Law's financial statements and it was interesting. Despite decreasing class sizes and violating their bond covenants, the school was generating a substantial profit (before considering their debt burden). For so long as schools can continue to keep expenses roughly in line (or lower than) revenues, they will remain open. And since so many universities appear to view their law schools as "crown jewels," I find it hard to imagine many of them being shuttered while net revenue positive (or where profit is in prospect).

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Feb 10, 2015 7:25:39 PM


American law schools should look to their common law brethren (and business schools too) and offer a full range of degrees. First, an undergraduate degree that provides a foundational liberal education prior to professional degrees in law, business, or other related fields. Second, a professional masters degree for those folks who want to become practicing lawyers. Finally, a research driven PhD could be offered.

This appears to work well for several issues. Students could explore law majors in undergrad prior to committing to a career; other students might explore law as a minor. Professional masters students would be assumed to arrive aware of legal fundamentals from undergrad and could be focused on those skills and knowledge sets most needed in practice. The research PhD would better prepare future professors in both research and in teaching skills; also same as in London, some law firms would seek out speciality researchers. All in all, more students might become engaged in legal studies at all levels and thus need more professors. And, this whole idea is long field tested in several other common law countries, so it's not exactly a risky option.

Why does law need to remain in the odd JD/LLM/SJD model when it doesn't actually provide the best results for neither students nor professors?

Posted by: Anon | Feb 7, 2015 1:05:16 AM

These are good questions, Matt, and Derek's pros and cons seem right to me. It seems that we should consider the mechanisms by which the law school market might arrive at either the "fewer students per school" result or the "fewer schools" result.

The "fewer students per school" result seems easier to achieve, since each school currently has at least some incentive to become smaller (maintaining LSATs for U.S. News, but also a genuine concern about producing too many graduates for the local market to absorb). The only thing preventing that is revenue. Many schools, however, are looking at several retirements in the coming years, so it would seem that, if they are going to right-size, now would be the time. It could be accomplished simply by not replacing those who retire (or not replacing all of them). Of course, failing to replace teaching faculty would present the prospect of more teaching for everyone, but that doesn't seem like a bad idea to me.

The "fewer schools" result seems much harder to achieve. Schools will act (sometimes heroically) to self-preserve, as we saw recently with Thomas Jefferson, and as you point out, the ABA is not really any kind of a gatekeeper. The recently reported transfer market explosion, however, if many other schools pick up on that strategy, could force some "feeder" schools into a position of unsustainability, leading to closures over time. For example, at some point, if a school that recruits less capable students in general keeps losing its most capable students every year, then the school's inevitably declining bar exam passage rates will eventually force even the ABA to take action. However, for some reason, the blogosphere's reaction to the high number of transfer admissions in some schools has been almost uniformly negative, despite the fact that the transfer market looks at lot like traditional, healthy market competition that is supposed to cause unsuccessful firms to fold. Nevertheless, such negative press might cause U.S. News to start accounting for transfers in its formula, as it ultimately accounted for part-time students after uproars about schools gaming the rankings. If so, the transfer market might dry up, leaving the less successful schools intact.

It's interesting to me (and not in a good way) that concern for U.S. News will inevitably figure prominently in either scenario.

Posted by: Scott Bauries | Feb 6, 2015 10:29:57 AM

Large number of small school benefits:

Better signaling to employers through tighter cohort quality. More opportunities for diversity at the institutional level (perhaps more experimentation in program design). Greater geographical diversity -- geo diversity can help with job placement, more opportunities for practitioner adjuncts, more students can live at home, more schools in low cost of living locations. Probably a tighter knit community.

Large number of small school cons:

Increased overhead (every school needs a library, and a half dozen or so vice deans). Less diversity in student bodies. Fewer options for classes (and less room to experiment on the class-level).

Small number of large school benefits:

Lower tuition through economy of scale. More diversity in student body. Greater opportunities for student groups, secondary/specialized journals, guest speakers, etc. Can offer niche classes. Easier for prospective students to research and apply. More attractive to employers for OCI.

Small number of large school cons:

More likely that every school tries to look like Harvard. Less chance for schools to distinguish themselves. Possible diseconomy of scale (administrative staff gets so big that you need admins to admin the admins; a bigger budget doesn't demand leanness as much). Students not at the top can become disconnected from the community. School more likely to be compared to yo momma.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Feb 5, 2015 2:46:36 PM

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