Tuesday, January 14, 2020
University of Tennessee professor of law Benjamin H. Barton has published a new book, Fixing Law Schools: From Collapse to the Trump Bump and Beyond, that is gaining a lot of attention.
Barton's findings were also recently featured in The Chronicle Review. Of interest is the decline in law school applications after the Great Recession and the consequences for law schools themselves, specifically cuts in faculty lines and less funding available for experiential learning courses. The other piece of the puzzle is an increase in tuition prices but more financial aid awards to top applicants at top schools.
Barton was asked in an Inside Higher Ed interview last month just what exactly law schools need to do to change. His answer:
Q: How should law schools change?
A: I have three basic suggestions. The first is the simplest to state, but the hardest to accomplish: law schools must become cheaper, or at least stop continuously outrunning inflation. The current cost and debt levels make law school a much worse investment than it was a generation ago, when placement was stronger and tuition was radically less. In 1985, it cost an average of $2,006 for in-state tuition and $7,526 in tuition for a private law school. In 2018 dollars that tuition is only $4,713 in-state and $17,681 for a private school. The actual 2018 averages are $27,591 for in state and $49,095 for private law schools! Law schools must recognize the changing market and adjust. If they do not, state and federal laws, especially those that subsidize law schools through state support or fully subsidized federal loans, are likely to change, and not to the benefit of law schools.
The second is for law schools to be much more aggressive and forward looking in teaching how to use technology to practice law. This does not mean that law schools should teach every student coding (although having an elective coding class is a good idea). But the lawyers who make it in the future will be the ones who leverage technology to their benefit, allowing them to practice “at the top of their license,” to use Richard Granat’s famous phrase. Technology can replace more rote tasks and allow lawyers to do more highly sophisticated work for more clients for less money. Rather than fearing technology as a competitor, law schools much embrace technology as a key assistant. We need to start teaching students these skills.
Last, the ABA has moved to regulation that focuses more on law school outputs (bar passage, job placement, attrition, etc.) rather than input measures (the size of the faculty, the number of books in the law library, etc.). This is a good trend, and law schools should take advantage of it by trying different models. That said, there has been too much predatory behavior by some law schools in the last decade, so I’d also encourage the ABA to be ever vigilant. So, law schools should let a thousand flowers bloom, but make sure not to be evil!