Law School Deans, Law Schools

Blaming The Media Didn’t Work, So A Law Dean Is Going To Change Everything, Except Tuition

Experimenting with everything other than price.

Last November, Case Western Reserve University School of Law Dean Lawrence Mitchell took to the New York Times to defend the value of a legal education. Instead of addressing the actual problems with legal education, Mitchell blamed the media for “irrationally” dissuading prospective law students from going to law school. His article touched off a raft of law deans and professors who seem more interested in defending the status quo than addressing structural issues.

It hasn’t worked. Law school applications continue to plummet. It would appear that mind tricks don’t work on prospective law students, only money (and legitimate employment options).

Specifically, it hasn’t worked for Case Western Reserve Law. Mitchell’s protestations generated a lot of press, but I wonder if Case has enjoyed its time as standard bearer for the “nothing is f**ked here, dude” approach to legal education. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Case Western enrollment is down to 104 students this fall. That’s down from 190 in 2011 and 165 just last year. Maybe instead of bitching in the Times, Mitchell should have addressed the problems in his own house.

It looks like he’s doing it now. Case Western is in the press again this week, this time for instituting massive changes to its law school curriculum. Many of the proposed changes sound pretty interesting. But I’ll note that one thing that is not changing is the tuition — that’s going to remain just as high as ever…

Here’s how the Cleveland Plain Dealer summarizes the curriculum changes at Case Western:

The new curriculum will require students to write more, work with clients beginning their first semester and spend at least a semester during their third year in an externship or clinical position.

Students must also take leadership courses taught by faculty at the Weatherhead School of Management.

The school will also offer summer courses, at no extra charge, so students can gain professional experience during the fall or spring semesters.

As cosmetic curricular changes go, these don’t sound so bad. There seems to be a more integrated approach here than say NYU Law, which essentially changed its 3L year into a glorified study abroad program.

Mitchell’s letter to Case Western Law students (posted in full on the next page) goes into more detail: “Each year of legal education will be devoted to helping our students achieve specific objectives, summed up as: Foundation. Focus. Fusion.”

Neither the foundation, the focus, or the fusion will be anything approaching “free” however. The Plain Dealer reports that tuition at Case Western Law is $46,700. That’s for a school that, according to LST, only places 44% of its students in full-time, long-term, J.D. required positions.

We know why Case Western is keeping the tuition too damn high, it needs the money. In addition to — or perhaps because of — the enrollment drop-off, Case is looking at a huge budget crunch. The school has already laid off staff and it has not renewed contracts for some non-tenure track faculty. Case is making these changes under duress in hopes that it inspires more people to apply.

But Mitchell’s focus still seems to be at odds with those of his students and prospective students:

He said the quick timeline to put the curriculum in place is unheard of in academia.

“We are taking something of a risk and nobody, including myself, is entirely comfortable with the rate of speed we did it,” he said. “We needed to get it done and are an example of an educational institution that gets the fact that we operate in a broader world and we have to think quickly and be responsive.”

No, dean Mitchell, the people taking a huge “risk” are the students who apply to Case Western Law for a new and unproven curriculum at the old and unreasonable price point. If you are going to try something experimental, people should be getting a discount for trying something new. These changes are being announced now but won’t take full effect until 2014. Obviously, this is something the school is trying to do to raise applications and enrollment next year. The school isn’t taking a risk, it is scrambling to fill seats. The “risk” will be borne almost entirely by the new law students who show up in 2014 at a school that seems to be struggling.

And again, I like many of these proposed changes. But there’s no evidence, none, that changes to Case Western curriculum will actually lead to better job opportunities for Case Western graduates three years later. Case Western might produce the most practice ready lawyers in the country in 2017, but if nobody hires them then what does it matter? The only thing that is guaranteed is that many Case Western Law students will pay or borrow over $45K to try it out… with no opportunity to get a refund if the experimental product doesn’t work or doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. You’ll note that for all these changes, Mitchell isn’t offering a “money-back guarantee,” or “three free years of traditional legal education if our program falls flat on its face.”

Would you buy a $120,000 house with an experimental roof that may or may not shelter you from the rain but you will certainly not be able to resell on the open market?

Paying $46,700 per year to go to Case Western Reserve Law is a risk. Changing the curriculum doesn’t mitigate that risk for students — if anything it heightens the risk without discounting for the danger. Would-be lawyers might be bad at math, but they are a generally risk-averse bunch. So while these changes are interesting, I’m not sure they’re going to solve Case’s enrollment problem.

Read Mitchell’s full memo to students on the next page…

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