PLUMMETING ADMISSIONS NUMBERS DECREASE COST OF CLINICAL COURSES RELATIVE TO OTHER COURSES

Like many in legal education, I have been obsessed with reading everything I can get my hands on regarding: 1) the restructuring of the demand for legal services in the “new economy” and 2) hmmm, what is a less negative word than “crisis” or  “tsunami?”,  ah yes,  the – “revolution” in legal education formed  by the combination of student debt , fewer JD jobs, and  plummeting admissions.  “Must” readings include, Bill Henderson’s analysis of the restructuring of the market for legal services  (see Henderson’s blog post here and article here ),  the Law School Admission Council’s LSAC Volume Report 2013 (with data as of January 3013), Dean Frank H. Wu’s letter to the ABA Taskforce (see ABA post located here and Dean Wu’s letter here) and Richard Susskind’s newest book “Tomorrow’s Lawyers.” The bottom line trends are: 1) law schools will be fewer, smaller, and, other than the top 14,  less lucrative; and 2) those with law degrees need to possess more than  just the traditional trademark tools of critical reasoning, substantive and procedural knowledge, and understanding of the attorney-client relationship.   In short, in order to survive, law schools need to re-imagine their identity, structure, cost-to -value ratio, and resource allocation to meet the demands of the new economy.  And when doing so, they must equip students and graduates for a broader, more creative, more collaborative and more entrepreneurial use of their law degree.

This combination of reduction in class sizes and the need for law graduates to have more well-rounded skill sets to compete for “new economy” jobs has already and will continue to affect law school curricular offerings, organization and priorities. In particular, legal education’s   traditional understanding of the actual and relative cost of clinic courses is dramatically changing in this cost-value economic model.  What do I mean? Deans (and their admissions and career planning directors) often state how they really want more clinical experiences in which students assume the role of the lawyer under good supervision.   However, the narrative continues, in- house clinics and well supervised and designed externship/field placements courses just “cost too much” compared to the low cost of putting a faculty member in front of a class of 50-100 students and letting them have at it! In other words, the old narrative holds that the actual “cost” of clinic courses is not about express value to the students, alums, and employers, but its relative cost vis- a- vis the traditional Socratic classroom.

Over the past decade and particularly since the global recession, that narrative has broken down, as law schools compete with each other to be the most bold and “innovative” in  re-structuring their curricula or creating an entirely  “experiential” third year .  And economically, that has made much sense.  As admission numbers plunge  so does the faculty student ratio and, thus,  the relative costs of making law schools focus more on the development of its students has radically declined.  In addition, clincal faculty and programs have had to evolve beyond the early days of replicating legal services or public defender offices and have matured into educational programs with expanded subject matter and  skills focus and beyond traditional representation and litigation models.

However, many in legal academia have not advanced their thinking to keep up with the new economic analysis.  In fact, I would recommend that all concerned with the future of legal education and its cost read  Professor Peter Joy’s wonderfully helpful 2012 article THE COST OF CLINICAL LEGAL EDUCATION (also here) as well as the charts and appendices connected with Professors Liz Ryan Cole and Nancy Maurer’s piece on field placements and externships found at 19 Clinical Law Review 115, 155-161 (2012)   I fear that many in legal education still shake their heads and  regretfully and sincerely but quite  inaccurately echo the outdated analysis that in these troubled times , “clinics cost too much”.  The relative faculty/student ratio is changing everywhere and that is making appropriately designed and updated clinical courses less “expensive” every day under any cost-value ratio and even under the reductive and incomplete “relative cost” analysis.

3 Responses

  1. Excellent observations, Mary.
    The simple fact is that schools will be offering more and more upper level courses and seminars with only 10 or 15 students (or even fewer). Thus the relative cost of a “labor-intensive” clinic is now less than it was.
    The same is true of simulation courses, normally capped at 12-20 students. And that doesn’t take into account the possibility of offering courses like Negotiation with a full-time faculty member supervising multiple sections taught by adjuncts. For suggestions how to do this see the Emory Transactional Law Conference 2010 materials:

    http://www.law.emory.edu/centers-clinics/center-for-transactional-law-practice/2010-conference/conference-materials.html

    or the article on my Bepress site:

    http://works.bepress.com/howardekatz/

  2. great resources! thanks for sharing

  3. Mary has connected the dots together well. The drop in applications have some additional implications that I am afraid we will see.

    First, some law schools will find that they cannot cut the size of their entering classes enough to adjust to the new normal without blowing through operating reserves and possibly going into debt. I am afraid that some law schools will not adhere to sound admissions practices and provide sufficient acadmic support to ensure that each student admitted has a satsifactory opportunity to complete law school, graduate, and become a member of the legal profession or engage in other work of the graduate’s choosing.

    Second, every indication is that the number of students applying to law school will not return to prior levels. Only 3% of BA graduates are applying to law school now. Ten years ago, 9% of BA graduates applied to law school. This means that most law schools are going to have to adjust to a reduced JD enrollment of 15-25% in terms of revenue and most likely more tuition remission. The resulting reduction in revenue means that expenses have to be reduced as well, and faculty salaries are the single largest expense at virtually every law school. We should be prepared to see faculty hiring decline further than it has over the past few years, more salary freezes and furloughs, and other cost cutting measures.

    As Mary and others have pointed out, some law schools will likely not survive. Best Practices for Legal Education and the Carnegie Report were published in 2007, but few law school faculties have used those findings to make changes to their programs of legal education to prepare students better for the practice of law. The best route for law schools to survive will be to undergo real change. The present economic realities for law schools will leave us no choice.

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