Lessons From Law Schools

This blog sometimes likes to examine other graduate programs -- law, medicine, nursing among them -- for ideas on how we might improve our own small graduate school of education, and how we see the field evolving. 

Today's entry comes from National Law Journal, via Tax Prof Blog:

Henderson: Advice to University Presidents: Restructure Your Law Schools, or Close Them

For the class entering law school in the fall of 2013, law school applicants have ebbed to a 30-year low. The collapse in demand for law school admission is producing profoundly serious business problems for a large proportion of U.S. law schools — problems that, for the moment, are hidden from public view as the resulting budgetary issues migrate from the dean's suite to the office of university presidents.

In a nutshell, central universities are being asked — or will be asked, in ways that will not inspire confidence in the current law school leadership — to provide a financial backstop so their law schools can enroll fewer students or offer more sizeable scholarships to fill the requisite number of seats. Because of the magnitude of the financial stakes involved — million-dollar shortfalls just for the upcoming fiscal year with no clear end in sight — this is as difficult a decision as a university president will ever face.

Below is the letter I would write to a university president who sought my advice on what to do. But the intended audience is law professors and practicing lawyers who seek to help their alumni institutions. For many of these readers, the best way to protect your law school is to make the university president's job easier by (1) coming to terms with the brutal facts, (2) honestly communicating your dilemma to the central administration and (3) proposing a solution that is realistic and potentially viable, even if the short- to medium-term tradeoffs are extraordinarily difficult and painful.

I can imagine the same letter for Ed School professors. 

[C]losure may be the best long-term course for the university. One step short of closure may be rolling the law school into the College of Arts and Sciences under a newly created law department that can service the undergraduate population. Faculty teaching loads and salaries can be rationalized accordingly. This would permit a dramatically pared down J.D. program that could one day be rehabilitated.

The one militating factor is your faculty's willingness to restructure its curriculum and mindset. Law school graduates are not wanting for jobs because law is going away. Rather, the legal industry is suffering from a productivity imperative — both private citizens and wealthy corporations need better, faster, cheaper legal solutions. Delivery on this imperative requires a redesign of both the legal system and the migration away from customized legal services to standardized legal products.

This reminds me of the trend line in public schools.  It's not clear we yet need cheaper solutions -- public dollars still seem to flow steadily, despite claims of looming cuts; surely they'll come in the long-term, but nobody knows when that is.  But it is clear that the public is demanding better results.  A productivity imperative.  Some scholars and advocates believe better results at scale must come better teaching. Others believe productivity will come from technology and personalization.  Either way, demand for teachers, and the types of teachers, seems likely to change, just as demand for lawyers is changing.  Ultimately this leads to the doorstep of law schools and ed schools.

The first hurdle in restructuring is the faculty itself embracing the need for change.

I hear that from many Ed school deans. 

The second hurdle is your own willingness to expand the scope of academic productivity. The most successful law schools in the future will be closely engaged with employers seeking to adapt to a rapidly changing industry.

This connects to the first hurdle.  Real-life teaching of kids, particularly in high-poverty schools, requires solving many problems that aren't covered in traditional teacher prep. 

Frankly, saving your law school is going to require courage and leadership. Brace yourself for vilification. Even if you are successful, your efforts and intentions will not be appreciated for years to come. I do not envy your choices. I certainly wish you the best of luck — you will need it.

Yes, the Ed school deans who do lead most aggressively will face some pretty strong pushback.  So far I can't think of any top of mind who are facing strong pushback, so perhaps nobody is pushing very aggressively.  

My sense is that for most Ed schools, such major changes aren't plausible. 

When Arne Duncan was first appointed, he delivered a shot across the bows to ed schools with the "Bermuda Triangle" speech.  But that's pretty far in the rear view mirror.  My DC insider friends say the ed schools are safe from a USDOE push. 

Some Ed schools feel pressure as new evaluation data makes transparent how their alums are doing in real-life classrooms.  That has already mobilized a few university presidents in states like NC and TN, but I haven't heard of that pressure leading to big changes. 

Small boutique ed "in person" schools like ours, with heavy 1:1 personal coaching of each master's student, will open.  I expect a few more this year.  But our market share will be tiny and won't disrupt the status quo.  

Instead, change will come as U of Phoenix, and MOOCs, and Relay, and hybrid brick-and-MOOCs simply take market share away from traditional programs.  It's very hard for existing large institutions to react to this type of threat, as Clayton Christensen has shown with his work on disruptive innovation. 

The TaxProf blog comments are interesting, too.