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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Two things law schools should focus on that will help them stay open and thrive

Law schools are in many ways self-contained. Unlike some other disciplines (e.g., Business) we don't educate undergraduates in addition to graduate or professional students. Our dean is not the dean of a school with many, and disparate, departments. We have our own building with our own library. We have our own admissions and professional development offices. And we usually have relatively autonomous registrar and financial aid services dedicated solely to the law school and housed in our building. We are not unique in these attributes; medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and perhaps other units are similarly self-contained. But our insularity may be one reason why law schools may be indifferent to the outside world in ways that work against our long-term viability.

As dental education can attest, and as last Wednesday's Inside Higher Ed/Gallup report on provost attitudes (here) supports, insularity can be deadly. But the experience of dental schools suggests at least two things law schools, and especially their leadership, can do to increase support, which may help some schools to remain open and may help other schools to thrive.

One thing is to ensure that the law school's programs and its focus, especially high-profile initiatives, are consistent with the university's mission. I am not suggesting that a school radically change the nature of its enterprise to align blindly with the university  most current fascination. Nor should a school cease to decide for itself in the first instance what its programs and focus should be. But I am suggesting that, when a school considers new initiatives, it explicitly consider how they fit with the university's overall mission.

More critically, I am suggesting that an important task for the dean is to demonstrate, repeatedly, to the university the ways in which what the law school does is consonant with what the university values. At least one dental school,  at Northwestern, was closed in part because the university concluded that the school was not aligned with the university's mission.

Last Wednesday's report on provost attitudes reinforces the importance of aligning the law school with the university and, as important, ensuring that the university realizes that fact. Ninety percent of all provosts surveyed (and 98% of provosts at public doctoral universities) said they plan to increase their emphasis on funding programs based on alignment with mission. A law school that finds itself in need of university support, either to expand or, more likely, to avoid even more cutbacks than the law school has already made, is obviously in a much better position to request that help if the university has confidence that the law school truly furthers the university's mission and its values. That confidence is most effective if it is built up over time.

A second thing law schools should focus on is engaging with constituencies outside the law school. Alumni/ae and the local and state bar and judiciary are obvious constituencies, but there are other important groups, frequently overlooked by law schools. Non-lawyer state and local political figures can be important to law schools, private as well as public. If the law school has an active clinic, greater school outreach to the communities the clinic serves can help the law school. This kind of non-lawyer support typically would take the form of vouching for the law school's value to the community, which is usually (though not always) part of the university's mission. Dental schools were often connected with the communities their clinics served, and those communities brought pressure on the university to keep the dental school open, though that pressure was not always successful. In the case of Georgetown's dental school, the dental clinic's community of patients was quite vocal in its support of the school and quite critical of the university's decision to close the school. In the end, the school was closed, but the community's protests made that process more public and more contentious than it otherwise would have been. Dental schools, in general, did not maintain close relations with their alumni/ae or with their local dental community and thus did not have those constituencies to call upon for help when the question of closing the school was on the table.

Perhaps the most important and under-recognized constituency is university administrators beyond the president and provost. The CFO, the head of university advancement, and the deans of the university's other schools and colleges are all key figures and the law school dean should make sure those administrators know what is happening in the law school and how the law school fits in the overall plan of the university.

I discuss these issues on pages 60-70 here.

Posted by Eric Chiappinelli on January 31, 2017 at 12:18 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


So many postings about dental school and the law. Is this someone's actual area of "research"?! If so, what more proof can there be that legal scholarship is useless to actual practitioners/judges?!! I could see one or two postings on this esoteric area, but there have been so many. "Dovetail areas of focus with your university." Is that really some novel idea that law schools wouldn't have thought of but for looking at dental schools?! "Reach out to the community." Are there really law schools for which that idea never occurred?!

Posted by: Anon | Jan 31, 2017 6:43:37 PM

Yada yada yada. Again, 49,000 law degrees awarded each year in a profession which employs about 625,000 people. It's time for state legislators to lance that carbuncle and let the pus and blood run out.

Posted by: Art Deco | Jan 31, 2017 5:17:22 PM

I want to sound some caution regarding a too-general factual predicate lying within the above: It doesn't actually reflect significant aspects of medical, dental, and veterinary-school relations with the undergraduate community that are distinct from those of law schools.

The subject is "research assistants." At many undergraduate institutions, top-third-to-quarter-of-the-class students work as research assistants in labs at allied medical/dental/veterinary schools, particularly in "basic research." Indeed, at top research-oriented medical schools it is almost expected that entering students have at least two years' research-assistant experience, with some preference for that experience being at a medical school instead of in an undergraduate department (even if the research were in the same subject area, such as developing drug-testing protocols).

In contrast, I doubt that there is more than a handful of law professors — and probably no institutional systems — with "research assistants" who are not law students, even when the subject matter requires different expertise or even just data-gathering assistance (like basic coding of medical malpractice filings for identity of parties and counsel, hospital affiliation, damages awarded, whether an appeal was taken and result, and similar data, in preparation for an epidemiological analysis of some kind). And multijurisdictional issues are just the tip of the iceberg here, because law inherently includes factual contexts drawing on doctrines, data, library resources, and so on that did not originate in law.

Whether this makes a difference to the analysis is a separate issue; however, acknowledging that law schools have systematically isolated themselves more than have medical/dental/veterinary schools is both more accurate and deserving of specific analysis.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Jan 31, 2017 1:37:23 PM

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