Washington Lawyer

Law Schools at a Crossroads

From Washington Lawyer, April 2016

Legal education in the United States faces an uncertain future. Despite fierce complaints about outrageous levels of student debt and declining law school admissions, there has been no profession-wide drive to reform ongoing and critical structural problems.

To be sure, one of the reasons for these problems is academic fragmentation. Institutions in the top tier of U.S. law schools face a much different reality than those in the bottom half, where graduates post lower bar test scores and pass rates, and have less access to legal jobs with livable salaries.

"We're hobbled by this one-size-fits-all model of legal education, which is increasingly out of touch with the diversity in legal tasks that lawyers are facing," says Deborah L. Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School and author of The Trouble With Lawyers. "We've got debt levels that are staggering right now. There just aren't enough well-paying jobs for our many, many graduates."

While no one knows exactly what the future holds for law schools, there is a consensus on these: There will have to be fewer law schools and fewer traditional law students;the three-year model needs to be morphed to include one or two years of training at certain law schools;federal borrowing rules must change to reduce financial incentives for excessive borrowing;and the profession has to be restructured to open up new avenues for the delivery of legal services and the training of legal professionals.

"Whatever happens over the next 20 or 30 years, law schools are still going to exist, but they are going to look very different than they do today," says Kyle McEntee, cofounder and executive director of Law School Transparency, a group advocating for law school reforms. "What we will need to do is change the business model for the American law school. I actually think we are positioned right now to really make changes because the profession is so concerned about law schools."

The American Bar Association Task Force on Financing Legal Education documented those concerns in its June 2015 report. It examined data on enrollments, student debt, grant and loan funding, and law school expenses.

The task force concluded the data was distressing. Between the 2009–10 and the 2014–15 academic years, private law school enrollment declined by 30 percent, and public law school enrollment slipped 18 percent.

Student borrowing has grown significantly. Using inflation-adjusted numbers, the average debt for private law school students jumped from $102,000 in the 2005–06 academic year to $127,000 in 2012–13. Public law school students' borrowing rose from $66,000 to $88,000 during the same period.

Meanwhile, the job market for law school graduates remains indifferent. Sixty-three percent of public law school graduates in 2013 landed a permanent, full-time job that required passing the bar. The employment rate for private law school graduates was 57 percent that same year.

Many believe law schools must first break free of the traditional three-year model for all law students and begin training legal specialists with one- and two-year programs to better serve consumer needs in the future. The dependence on traditional bricks-and-mortar facilities and conventional academic curriculum must be transformed to accommodate the evolving needs of the profession in the future, experts say.

"I think there needs to a real rethinking of the structure of legal education," says Rhode. "The current plight has been a real wakeup call to the profession, but I don't think the circumstances are dire enough yet to create real change in the system. We're still only seeing changes at the margins."