Wendy Perdue.

 

As a fierce snowstorm pummeled the Northeast Thursday and closed law school campuses, more than 2,400 legal academics convened in sunny San Diego for the Association of American Law Schools’ 2018 meeting—the largest annual gathering of law professors.

On tap were sessions covering an array of topics, from free speech on campus and the opiate crisis to the legality of sanctuary cities and marijuana, an especially hot issue in California where recreational cannabis became legal on Jan. 1. (Meanwhile, the DOJ on Thursday said it was rescinding Obama era guidelines that essentially discouraged federal prosecutors from going after pot growers and sellers who were following state laws.)

The state of legal education will again be a key issue, with two law schools—Charlotte School of Law and Indiana Tech Law School—closing in 2017. A third, Whittier Law School, last year announced plans to wind down while Valparaiso University Law School halted new admissions amid an uncertain future.

We caught up with incoming AALS President Wendy Perdue, dean at the University of Richmond School of Law, to discuss her goals for the association, the apparent boost in law school applicants this year, and whether the closure of some schools is good for legal education. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

 

The Association looks pretty smart right now for choosing San Diego. How’s the weather?

It’s nice. I’d like to say that we’re clairvoyant, but these things get scheduled about eight years in advance. We’re going to claim we predicted the entire thing.

 

The AALS in recent years has tried to be more of a public advocate for legal education. Do you think it has been effective in making the case for law school?

Let me answer that in two ways. The Association of American Law Schools has become more visible and vocal, not just alone but in partnering with other organizations that have a shared interest in the quality of our legal system, access to justice, and the rule of law.

As to whether it has been effective, I think so. I don’t know what the metrics would be, but we know that applications to law school are up. That’s a correlation, not necessarily causation. We think we’re doing a better job of helping people understand the importance of a strong legal education system and its importance to democracy.

 

As you mentioned, the number of applicants was up nearly 12 percent in early December. Any theories as to why?

There are lots of theories and we don’t yet know for sure. Some of it may be in the natural cycle of applications. Historically you see it goes up and down. We’ve had a more extreme down than in other times. Beyond that, I think there is reason to believe that at least some of it is a renewed interest among young people who want to have an impact and make a change, and that they think law would be a way to do that.

 

How is the mood at the annual meeting? Are deans and faculty optimistic that legal education is poised to rebound?

You can’t be a dean without being optimistic. Among deans, we are always hopeful about the future. I think the concern right now is the pending education bill that would dramatically limit access to loan funds for graduate students. The house bill, at the moment, caps graduate borrowing at $28,500 and would eliminate public service loan forgiveness, that’s of great concern to all law deans.

We’re also concerned about increasingly unfavorable attitudes toward higher education in general. That said, I think there is more optimism given the change in application numbers.

 

Is the closure of some law schools a good or bad thing for legal education as a whole?

The number of schools closing is relatively small, so the overall impact is not very much when you think of the reduction of seats available in law schools. The last six years have been tumultuous, and I think a lot of people thought we’d see more closures earlier. Frankly, I think it reflects the value universities have put on legal education that we went a long time without schools closing.

 

Can you give me an update on the “Before the JD” project—the association’s survey and study that seeks to illuminate how and why undergraduate students choose, or don’t choose, law school.

I think we’ll have something in the spring. I think it will give us a much better sense of, among 1Ls, what were the things that mattered to them? We’re hopeful it will give us a better sense of where students get their information. When are they deciding? How are they deciding about law school versus other graduate programs? Who are their advisors? Where and how are they learning about the opportunities?

 

What is the theme of your presidency?

It’s building bridges. It really is based on the notion that in a time that’s increasingly politically polarized, lawyers have a skill set that can be quite useful. We are in the dispute resolution business. We’re accustomed to dealing openly and fairly with different views. My hope is that we can encourage law schools, law students and faculty to model and teach some of the skills I think are in high demand right now.