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Monday, May 15, 2017

The Half-Sized Law School and the Cost in New Prawfs

Two years ago I asked the question: should we have fewer law schools or fewer students per school?  I think there are normative arguments for either approach: more schools means more geographic diversity but fewer economies of scale.  The legal academy has clearly chosen the "more schools" approach.  As Derek Muller documents in "The Incredible Shrinking Law School,"  law school graduating classes dropped from an average of 206 graduates in 2013 to 161 last year.  These numbers back up the myriad of anecdotal pieces about shrinking class sizes that have, frankly, lost their newsworthiness.  Meanwhile, despite some initial claims that as many as one-third of law schools would close, we've seen almost the other end of the spectrum.  Two schools have merged, one school has shut down, and one other is likely in the process of shutting down.  More may be on the way, but thus far fewer students per school has clearly won out.

One ramification of this approach has been the loss of jobs for new law profs.  As documented in Sarah Lawsky's annual census, the numbers went from annual hiring in the 150s to a low of 70 new hires in 2015.  This, too, is old news.  But I think the connection between the "fewer students" and the "fewer entry-level hires" has not necessarily been made.  Yes -- under either approach, there would be fewer law profs.  But when schools close, law professors of all ages lose their jobs.  When schools shrink, the first jobs to go are the hires that haven't yet happened.

I've blogged before about law school sustainability, and I think legal academia needs to recognize this big drop in hiring as a sustainability problem.  There has been some attention paid to the bubble of hires made in the 1970s and the effect of those hires on law schools now.  But there has been comparatively little attention paid to the folks like me who populate this blog's masthead and were hired between 2000 and 2010.  We too are something of a bubble.  And we are a longer-term problem, if only because we are earlier in our careers.

So, what should be done?  Should there be stronger post-tenure review to push out those "bubble" hires who are taking the place of a new and more productive hire?  That seems extremely unlikely to me.  Similarly, it seems more likely that schools will continue to shrink rather than close.  But there is unquestionably a "decade of hiring" effect within legal academia, and the academy should be thinking of ways to deal with this generational disparity.  Otherwise, we are depriving our students and our field of contributions from the next wave of academic innovators.

UPDATE: Rick Bales made the same point here.

Posted by Matt Bodie on May 15, 2017 at 10:47 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


This argument makes sense on it face, but it relies on a whole host of assumptions.

1) It assumes that the prestige and quality of top law schools won't suffer by absorbing the increased number of graduates who they previously would not have admitted but who they would undoubtedly have to absorb in order to scale.

2) It assumes that top law schools offer better law school education.

3) It assumes the laughable assertion that we judge the "quality" of law schools by the quality of teaching. What if lower ranked schools have better teachers because they have to deal with students with less natural aptitude or less privileged backgrounds? Then, it doesn't seem sensible to close these schools, so these students can be taught in schools that prefer teaching students how to "think like a lawyers" and be policymakers instead of clearly teaching the practical rules and procedures needed to represent clients in court.

4) It assumes law school education is fungible and that students who are unable to attend a particular lower-ranked law school would automatically attend a similar higher-ranked law school. I would imagine that some of those students are attending because they received scholarships, or have very particular geographic requirements, and that they might not otherwise attend law school.

Those are just a few of the pesky assumptions that I can identify, which in fact, also are the assumptions that seem to underlie how we think about law schools in general. If we want more new hires, the old people need to let go. But I'm incredibly skeptical of the assertion that closing half the law schools in this country would actually meet this aim.

Posted by: anon | May 18, 2017 10:09:21 AM

The industry would clearly be better off with a smaller number of stronger schools able to offer more robust curricula, pay (on average) larger salaries to attract higher quality faculty and programming and spread admin costs over more students, but that doesn't seem like the equilibrium we'll get in the short run. Which is a shame, because two strong, attractive schools will attract better students to the profession than four schools that limp along with poor employment outcomes.

Posted by: Anon | May 17, 2017 3:11:14 PM

Post-tenure review is probably untenable, but how about a tenure review that isn't all but a fait accompli? One that more resembles our colleagues' process, instead of yet another area where the law faculty are an unexplained exception?

Posted by: john | May 16, 2017 6:42:18 PM

Interesting post, Matt. Another way of looking at it is that, at some schools, the hires from the 2000-10 window are remaining the "junior faculty" for a really long time.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 15, 2017 12:42:51 PM

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