Law School Deans, Law Schools

Short-Sighted Law School Seeks Long-Term Vision

As we’ve discussed before, law schools have handled the declining interest in law school in a couple of ways. One method is to just admit fewer people. Another response involves lowering entrance standards so you can admit the same (or even greater) number of students as you did when times are good.

Both strategies are temporary solutions to a long-term problem, but the latter method is particularly short-sighted. Turning your law school into a place that admits everybody who can scrawl their mark on a FAFSA form is not a sustainable answer to the crisis in legal education.

It would appear that one law school searching for a new dean is trying to grapple with that problem….

George Washington University Law School is perhaps the highest-ranked law school that has adopted an “everybody gets admitted” approach. We’ve written about their interesting choice. Keeping class sizes high by lowering admissions standards allows GW Law to avoid more painful, cost-cutting measures.

But as the school searches for a new dean, it has to ask itself if the strategy is sustainable. An article in the GW Hatchet looks at the law school’s search for a new dean:

[Provost Steven Lerman] said the dean candidates who have visited campus this spring had a range of opinions of how interest in law schools would change.

“That’s a strategic question for the next dean, and different candidates have had different views on that,” he said.

I know it doesn’t look like it, but that right there, in just two sentences, pretty much sums up what is wrong with legal education.

Deans, new and old, think that the problem is that “interest” in law school has declined. But that’s not the problem; that’s never been the problem. The lack of interest is just a symptom. The problem is that law schools are not giving enough value for the prices they charge.

The goal can’t be to trick the market. There’s an illustrative quote from a GW professor at the end of the piece:

Alberto Benítez, a professor who oversees the school’s immigration clinic, said the clinical experience helped many of his students find jobs.

“Thinking back to last year or the year before, a clinical experience did help them get a job, either because they had it on their resumé and employers like clinical students, or they had experience on their resumé and employers think, ‘That experience is something I don’t have to teach them,’” he said.

Does he “think” that the clinical experience helped people get jobs, or does he “know”? Is he using anecdotal evidence, or statistically significant research?

See, we don’t have to “wonder” about these things. We can study them. We can test them. We can objectively assess their performance. For all of the talk about the value of clinical experience… I’ve yet to see any evidence of a “jobs bump” for kids that focus on clinical studies as opposed to kids who do not.

Why are we in 2014 and we haven’t seen that evidence, either way? Because law deans and would-be law deans are busy trying to figure out what influences law school “interest.” You see, it’s irrelevant to some of these people whether or not clinical programs actually work… what’s relevant to them is whether or not prospective law students believe that they work. If prospective law students believe that clinical programs will help them get jobs… well then, it doesn’t MATTER if clinical programs actually help people get jobs. The “interest” in them is all that is important.

Ultimately, that’s the short-sighted play. That’s how we got here in the first place. We’re here because for too long law schools have been more interested in what they can sell to prospective students than they are in what actually works for recent graduates.

To use a sports analogy, law school deans still care more about their BA instead of their OPS. Until they fundamentally change their thinking on what constitutes “valuable” legal education, they will continue to lose.

With interest waning nationwide, law dean will need to devise long-term plan [GW Hatchet]

Earlier: A Law School Dean’s Painful Decision
Ouch: The Law Schools With The Biggest Drops In Enrollment Since 2010

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