The Canary in the Law School Coal Mine

column | Higher Education

The Canary in the Law School Coal Mine

By Michael B. Horn (Columnist)     Apr 25, 2017

The Canary in the Law School Coal Mine

Whittier College’s announcement last Wednesday that it will no longer admit students to its law program makes it the first fully accredited law school in the United States to shut down. There is a good chance it won’t be the last.

As Michele Pistone, a law professor at Villanova University, and I wrote in “Disrupting Law School: How Disruptive Innovation Will Revolutionize the Legal World,” although law schools have long enjoyed budget surpluses, the financial situation has reversed over the last few years.

Facing dramatic declines in enrollment, revenue and student quality at the same time that their cost structure continues to rise and public support has waned, law schools are in crisis. Many now rely on financial support from their universities to stay afloat.

The steps law schools are taking—in the hope they can survive just long enough for pre-crisis status quo conditions to return—represent a doubling down on their traditional strategies. Most are trying to maintain their prestige within the legacy model used to rank and compare law schools: the U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings. The focus is to stay ahead of their competitors until the market evens out and everything returns to normal.

What’s so punishing is that the good days are over. Shrinking employment opportunities for recent graduates are a direct result in part of the emergence of new legal services. Companies like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, which have created a do-it-yourself model for legal services, and others like Ravel and ROSS that improve lawyers’ research and productivity, have changed the profession and business models.

Simply put, disruption is lessening the need for lawyers, which means law schools are producing too many lawyers for positions that increasingly do not exist. At Whittier, only 30 of the 141 graduates in 2015 had gained full-time employment that required passing the bar. According to the New York Times, Whittier’s graduates last year had an average of $179,000 pre-interest debt. This will not reverse.

By following the traditional playbook, law schools are only perpetuating these problems. To maintain their U.S. News rankings, many law schools offer tuition discounts to students whose LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs will boost the school’s ranking, without regard to whether the applicant needs help paying full tuition. Because most law schools rely on tuition to fund operations, this in turn further worsens their financial position.

There have been several lawsuits challenging the veracity of claims that law schools make around job placement in recent years. Although most have not gone to court, if one does and a verdict goes against a law school, the floodgates for future cases could open.

On top of all these challenges, higher education itself is, of course, seeing a variety of potential disrupters emerge, all powered at least in part through online learning.

To this point, disruptive innovators have not directly attacked law schools by offering new versions of a legal education. But were entities to emerge that paired online learning, with its flexibility and competency-based learning attributes, with place-based clinical experiences that trained students to practice law in a more affordable and practice-oriented fashion, the pressure on law schools would only increase.

For schools not yet in full-blown crisis, and with some cash on hand from their parent university, there appear to be four paths forward.

First, launching an autonomous entity is one way to combat the impact of disruption. By harnessing an existing law school’s superior resources to create a new entity separate from and not stifled by the parent’s existing processes and priorities, a law school-based educational startup could itself become the first disrupter.

Second, schools could use online learning technologies as a sustaining innovation to improve learning and control costs. By blending online learning with face-to-face instruction, law schools could incorporate more active learning and professional skills development into the existing three-year educational model.

Third, law schools could specialize by creating programs that allow J.D. students to focus deeply on a particular area of law. Students could learn core subjects through online, competency-based programs and their in-person experience would focus on extensive training in a particular area of law through experiential learning courses, live-client clinics, simulations, capstones, directed research and writing, moot court and trial advocacy exercises, and field placements.

And, finally, innovative law schools could build new, non-J.D. degree programs that specialize in training students for careers that combine elements from law, business and government—in international trade, for example. These degrees would not fit neatly into existing law, business or government schools and would be less time-consuming and expensive than, say, a joint J.D.-M.B.A. Or they could offer new credentials that prepare non-J.D.s for the many fields that intersect with the law but do not require a J.D. degree, such as regulatory compliance.

As one law school dean recently told me, the J.D. is not a growth business. It’s time to innovate elsewhere.

Although there will undoubtedly—perhaps ironically—be lawsuits to force Whittier College to keep its law school open, the future for non-elite law schools is clear. The question is will they move away from tradition and shape the future or act only when it’s too late and follow the path of Whittier.

Michael Horn (@michaelbhorn) is an EdSurge columnist and Principal Consultant for Entangled Solutions

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