Are there changes afoot in law school education? Most assuredly. Law school enrollment is down dramatically. Administrators of law schools and firms that recruit a large number of the newly minted graduates, as well as the American Bar Association are all weighing in on suggestions to improve and modernize law school education. Some key issues that appear to need remediation or attention include:
Spiraling Law School Costs: The costs of law school tuition have tripled or quadrupled in the past decades. Yet the average starting salaries of graduating lawyers have not increased by nearly the same amounts. In fact, the jobless rate of recent law school graduates, combined with the fact that many recently minted attorneys are working in jobs that don’t officially require a JD, indicate that the value of a law school education has actually diminished in real dollars.
A further wrinkle is that the most established law schools with often the deepest endowment pockets are able to offer scholarships and financial aid, particularly based on high LSAT scores. Students who were not at the tippy top of that pile are applying to lower-tiered schools and taking on higher debt. Unfortunately, the reputations of these second and third tier schools mean that the graduates are often not getting job offers with the highest paying salaries. In essence, many law school students are graduating from lower ranked schools, paying more out of their pockets for less discounted tuition and getting lesser salaries when they graduate.
Wayne State Law School has decided to address the law school cost head-on by holding their tuition at the same level and offering automatic $4,000 per year scholarships for all students.
Needed Changes to Law School Education Pedagogy: Graduates of law schools are taking new classes that weren’t even conceived of ten years ago: classes that teach about counterterrorism, human trafficking, internet torts and crimes, digital storytelling and the law, European Union law, Chinese Law and Constitutions and fracking, to name a few. Yet, this plethora of courses still doesn’t address the bottom line issues that many graduates feel: their law school education may not have adequately prepared them for the real world tasks they are asked to do on a daily basis. Some graduates felt unnerved by being asked to do close reading of long, complex contracts and transaction documents. Others felt that they were being asked to be more business-savvy than they were. Several universities are now offering “business boot camp” for its attorneys. Michigan State is also receiving national attention for its Reinvent Law Laboratory, which includes a start up competition with real life legal hurdles.
This dissatisfaction with law school education is not universal and several universities’ graduates (including those from the University of Michigan) indicate that they felt well-prepared, according to a survey published in the September issue of The American Lawyer.
The Economics of Law School: Law school enrollment numbers have been plummeting since 2010, when there were 33,000 more law school students than there are today. For most law schools, increasing tuition and/or remediating enrollment are the only ways to boost revenue. Some universities are grappling with whether or not they need to be less selective in order to lift their enrollments.The elite law schools are still managing to fill their ranks, offering a mix of merit-based and need-based aid. All law schools are examining their costs, much of which are not fungible, when buildings and facilities are part of the equation. Law school professors are among the highest paid professors, because their salaries need to be competitive with what they would receive in the marketplace; yet professors are often encouraged to publish and to do community service, activities that may not necessarily be contributing to the value of what is perceived to be an overpriced law school tuition. In addition, schools have moved to more courses with less students per course and continued their emphasis on the Socratic teaching methodology. There is some pressure on university leadership to focus more on quality teaching of larger numbers of students and addressing changes in the field directly in the classroom environment.