After the initial shock of years of layoffs in law firms, and after years of law students in a panic over the dwindling job pool, one of the groups that has long had some of the best job security in the legal profession is now the target of layoffs: law professors. After several years of low enrollment and angry students with no summer or permanent jobs, law schools are buckling under the pressure and laying off their faculty. Some law schools are, like law firms did with associates, letting their junior, untenured faculty go. What’s even more groundbreaking is that some law schools have been discussing the removal of tenured faculty, and now a debate about the future of tenure has emerged.
The American Bar Association is reconsidering whether the promise of tenure to most faculty members should be a factor in a law school’s accreditation. The ABA has proposed two alternatives to tenure as an accreditation requirement. One would require schools to show that they have an alternate form of job security in place for full time faculty, including clinical professors and legal writing instructors. The other alternative would require no job security, but would otherwise ask schools to show that they have policies in place to maintain competent faculty members and preserve academic freedom.
Not surprisingly, some law school deans around the country are in favor of less tenure and more freedom to make cuts in the faculty. Highly paid senior faculty members have become a drain on otherwise precious resources. Also, as one would expect, faculty are fighting back against this change. The ABA, which will be accepting comments on its proposal through January 31, 2014, has received a letter signed by 500 law school professors arguing against the change.
It seems highly unfortunate that we are seeing such a strikingly similar approach to hard times from both law firms and law schools. It’s ironic that in a profession that thrives on talented people, as opposed to innovative products, when issues arise, one of the first solutions that we turn to is which talented people we should shed from an organization in order to save money. Clearly there are economic realities to consider, and schools do undoubtedly need to make cuts. Perhaps, in many cases, there are tenured faculty members who need to step aside. In crafting a solution, legal academia should look for a compromise somewhere between destroying a system that has worked for many years and maintaining a status quo that is proving unworkable. That does not have to mean the end of tenure. It does mean, however, that law schools will need to decide how to retain both young untenured faculty members, who are the future of the school, as well as professors with years of important experience. And, it means that tenured professors and junior faculty need to cooperate with the administration on finding a solution, which may mean lesser salaries or changes in positions and roles within the school.
We favor a collaborative solution in which talented people get to keep their jobs, and one in which the end goal is stopping the decline in the legal profession instead of preserving the bottom line.•