I recently had dinner with the dean of a law school. To give you a sense of this person’s perspective, I’ll say that he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) is responsible for a law school that U.S. News ranks somewhere between 50 and 100. His school has thus been hammered by the Great Recession and the decrease in applications to law school, but the school is not (yet) thinking of turning out the lights.
I didn’t actually pry into what was happening at his school. He simply volunteered that his life was far different now than it had been a very few years ago. I guess that’s no surprise, given the tumult of the times.
Anyway, what are law school deans doing these days?
First, my deanly buddy (predictably) says that the decrease in law school applications is affecting law schools in very different ways. “At Harvard and Yale, they’re slightly adjusting how they run a few programs. At the least prestigious schools, they’re in a panic. They’re trying desperately to attract students, scrambling to cut costs, and trying to figure out how to survive. And I just don’t see how they all can make it. A fair number of the lowest-ranked schools are going to have to close. There’s no way they can survive.”
Second, he said that he spends his days trying to convince senior faculty members to retire. “Those are funny conversations. I’m talking to people who’ve invested their entire lives in the school. They’ve been teaching for decades, and now they’re finally thinking about the future. You learn a lot when you talk to people about retirement: You learn whether they’ve saved enough money to survive without a regular paycheck. You learn how badly their investments were hit when the stock market crashed a few years ago. You learn whether they’ve cultivated enough hobbies to entertain themselves once they’re no longer working.
“It surprised me. You’d think that scholars have more time and interest than other lawyers to pursue avocations, but many of them don’t. It’s hard to convince many people that it’s time to retire. I’m not having much luck with it.”
Third, he said that he’s basically closed the door on hiring any new faculty members: “We just can’t do it. We’re doing everything we can to reduce the size of our faculty and cut costs. We’re really not looking at hiring replacements, and we’re certainly not trying to bring entirely new people on board. I feel bad for recent law school graduates who’d like to pursue careers in academia.”
I dutifully pointed out (on behalf of a portion of my readership) that recent graduates who were considering careers in academia surely had impeccable credentials and thus a pretty decent fallback position: They could work at law firms for $160K a year until they’d paid off their loans and think about academia in the future.
But the dean wasn’t so sure about the “academia in the future” part: “You’re assuming that the market for legal services (and law school applications) will recover. I’m not so sure. It looks as though law schools are turning out more lawyers than the market currently needs, and I’m not sure when, if ever, we’ll return to the good old days.”
I’m afraid that I didn’t ask my dean what he’s doing to maintain the quality of his entering classes (and thus how his school will maintain its U.S. News ranking), and he didn’t volunteer anything on that score. Nor did he say much about the employment prospects of his recent graduates, although you could tell from his demeanor that the news isn’t happy.
And, oh yes: He quite enjoyed the seafood risotto, and my sole was a wonderful treat. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow . . . .
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at email@example.com.