Tipping the Scales

The Lawyer’s Emissary: An Interview With Loyola’s David Yellen

by Jeff Schmitt

Loyola Law Dean David Yellen

Loyola Law Dean David Yellen

A decade ago, law school was widely viewed as the ticket to big bucks and lifetime employment. As the economy plunged in 2008, young lawyers entered a world they could not have imagined, with nearly two graduates for every opening. So has legal education grown irrelevant and ripe for disruption? Or, have hard times planted the seeds for an education renaissance?

If you talk to David Yellen, dean of the Loyola University School of Law in Chicago, you’ll come away convinced of the latter. The way Yellen sees it, the recent downturn has made law school education better than it has ever been. Schools have heaped on the like of learning opportunities that have made students better prepared to practice law. They’ve devoted more resources to law students. And even the glut of law graduates is working itself out. “It’s a great time to be a law student,” insists Yellen.

But Yellen is no ivory tower Pollyanna. With his down-to-earth manner, he doesn’t shy away from taking a controversial perspective. Whether calling law curriculum too faculty-centric or questioning ranking criteria used by U.S. News, he has come to have a reputation for thoughtful and balanced responses.

Yellen’s candor has proved invaluable to the ABA’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, which has stirred healthy debate with its final recommendations on modifying law school tuition and accreditation standards. Yellen has also contributed to the annual Law School Survey of Student Engagement, which recently debunked the widespread view that law students are deeply dissatisfied with their education.  Most recently, he was named by National Jurist as one of the 25 Most Influential People In Legal Education.

For Yellen, legal education is more than a job. It’s a calling. And he’s found a community of like-minded educators at Loyola Law, which he describes as an “incredibility supportive and dynamic place.” “The way in which people care about people – from faculty to students to staff to alumni – is unlike any other institution,” he says. Yellen, who earned his J.D. at Cornell and joined Loyola Law as dean in 2005, is thrilled to be working at such a dynamic school: “It’s growing and succeeding in ways that people who graduated 20 years ago could not imagine.”

In a wide-ranging interview with TippingTheScales, Yellen shares his insights on why he thinks the market for law school grads has hit bottom and is beginning a recovery, why the trend toward experiential learning in law is important, and how Loyola came to have the most non-lawyer and online students of any law school in the country.

What do you make of the so-called “Law School Bubble” which has led some to portray legal education as an over developed business, filled with out-of-work graduates and out-of-touch faculty. What criticisms are unwarranted in your view? And which have some truth to them?

What is completely unwarranted is any suggestion that many law school faculty members care mostly about their situation and their job and not about their students. The vast majority of law school faculty members I’ve ever known care very deeply about their students and their success. And they devote a lot of time and energy to teaching, advising, mentoring, and assisting in job searches.

It’s also completely untrue when people say law schools have turned their back on the profession. In fact, legal education today, what happens in the classrooms, is more connected with the practice of law that it was 10 or 20 or 40 years ago.  Law schools have consistently and increasingly moved toward advancing experiential learning to help prepare students for practice. We still have a long ways to go. But some people suggest there was once a golden age when law schools were doing a better job preparing students to be lawyers. And that’s just not true.

What is true, in my opinion is that the size and cost of legal education has some similarities to what’s referred to as a bubble. In 2010, 52,000 people entered law school and I think that was too many given the available jobs and the likely trend of jobs.  And the market has reacted vigorously to that. This year, there were under 40,000 new law students. So in three years, there was a 25% decline in the number of law students. So now we’re at a level where there is a much better match between the number of law grads and the number of jobs.

On the cost side, tuition has gone up way more than inflation for 20 or 25 years and that’s a significant societal problem throughout all of higher education. The task force addressed that and it’s not like we came up with any real meaningful solutions. We tried to identify the issues and causes. And we urged the ABA to appoint a subsequent task force separately on that issue. And that reflects how complicated those issues were.

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