I was in Chicago for some bar business the other day when Tom Lyons, of Rhode Island, told me that he had just been appointed to an American Bar Association committee studying the future of legal education. Tom is half of the Fred Ury/Tom Lyons tag team that has been traveling the country telling lawyers how the profession is changing and urging bars to get ahead of the trends that threaten to reshape (demolish?) the practice of law as we know it.
Tom told me that he recently had been taking the “future-of-the-profession” show to law schools. He described presenting the faculty of one low-tier school with a picture of the rapid changes affecting every aspect of law practice and what the future might hold for lawyers. He said that the dean had warned him to expect hostile pushback. The response he got was stunned silence. When I asked him how many classes that school offered in the practical aspects of running a law office and representing clients, he said none, but they did offer two courses in genocide.
I wondered why the ABA needs a new committee when it already dominates the field of law school regulation. It may be a perception that, as often happens, the regulated have co-opted the regulators and a feeling that the existing regime is not addressing the 600-pound gorilla issue that there may be too many schools pumping out too many lawyers for a shrinking market.
The Law School Transparency Project web site ranks law schools on many things, including their placement stats. Their numbers ring true with what Fred and Tom have been saying for several years—that the overproduction of new lawyers is about twice the market demand. The logical outcome of that equation is not complicated. Market economics would suggest that a declining demand will eventually shrink the supply.
Of course, some players in this field are more to blame than others. I was reading a decision where a lawsuit against the Cooley Law School was dismissed by a Michigan judge who pointed out that no reasonable consumer would have been fooled by the overblown, contradictory and misleading information the school offered to potential students. While Cooley proclaimed victory in the decision, it may be a victory of a Pyrrhic type.
One law professor has posted his analysis of the recent decline in law school applications, positing that high achievers seem to be moving away from legal education, leaving the field to students who would not have had a chance of admission a few years ago. His advice is that this is the best time for weak students to apply, because the admission rates will be the highest in history as schools scramble to fill seats with warm bodies.
Of course, many of these folks will graduate with huge debt and no prospects of employment, but as the Michigan judge noted, these are risks and choices for consumers to make and not matters for which there is legal recourse. We all have a constitutional right to make bad economic decisions. As the judge in Michigan noted, the rule of caveat emptor applies as much in legal education as in other markets.
I am encouraged that the membership of the ABA committee includes members of the legal education industry, including several law school deans, as well as judges and bar leaders. I think a problem has been that prior examinations of this topic, such as the one just completed by the Massachusetts Bar Association, failed to include educators in the discussion.
I was also encouraged that the incoming ABA president has announced an initiative to develop a national model of a system where underemployed new lawyers can serve underserved communities, such as the lower middle class who are flooding the courts with self-represented parties to the point that judicial administration is at a breaking point. This issue was addressed by Chief Justice Chase Rogers during her remarks at the recent Connecticut Bar Association annual meeting. She shared a vision of something akin to “Teach for America” for lawyers. One lawyer who knows the chief justice tells me “she really gets this issue.”
Right now, both Quinnipiac and UConn are without law school deans. Law Tribune columnist Norm Pattis recently wrote on this, offering that he might have an interest in running a law school. Good luck with that! I am not sure whether the right tool to address the problems in legal education would be a scalpel or a hand grenade. •