A Candid Interview With UPenn Law Dean Michael Fitts

Penn Law School

Penn Law School


But are law schools producing too many lawyers?
Clearly, the legal profession is going through a lot of change. The economy is restructuring and that has reduced the overall demand for legal services. And then there is much more sophisticated about the delivery of legal services. Some things can be done in India. Other things can be done by computer. Some things can be done very cheaply when they don’t require much sophistication. On the other hand, some things require more sophistication than we ever imagined when I went to law school. For us, the type of professional who can think through a difficult problem and manage it is in more demand now than ever before.
We graduate about the same number of law school students that we did a quarter of a century ago. The need for lawyers–both nationally and globally–has gone way up since then. So no, I don’t think we are producing too many lawyers. We are very well positioned in this.
So you think there isn’t an oversupply of lawyers in the U.S.?
If you look at the numbers of lawyers graduating from law schools, there was a huge increase in the 1960s. That was when the largest number of lawyers began to graduate from law schools. There was another increase after 2000. What you see now across the country is a reduction in the number of entering law students. We may go back to the numbers of five or ten years ago. There are a lot of parts of the economy where there has been reduced demand. There clearly was a rapid increase in the sixties which seemed to work out quite well.
The other thing that is happening is that law schools tended to have one model of legal education. They were more similar than they were different. My guess is that will change. There will be more differentiation among law schools. Law schools are different than business schools because they are regulated by the American Bar. So there has to be certain core elements to a legal education program, but personally my view is there should be much more variety in what is offered which would mean different specializations and maybe different cost structures.
From your standpoint has there been a flight to quality which is what often happens when a market constricts?
Generally, when students are applying to law schools, they have always wanted to go to the top. There has always been a perception of a hierarchy and therefore students always wanted to go to top institutions. It’s impossible to predict how this will play out. There have been reductions at a number of schools. Again, we didn’t expand. We brought in roughly 240 students in 1988 which is about the same number we brought in this year. You could ask us why as the global market expanded in law didn’t we increase the size of the Penn Law School. Our view is that this is a perfect size for the educational program we wanted to offer so we just stayed at the same number of students.
And yet you have doubled your space in the last few years so you have plenty of capacity. Could you and shouldn’t you get larger?
It goes back to what we think is the best size for our program. We are relatively small among the elite law schools. Harvard graduates close to 600. Columbia and NYU graduate about 500. Georgetown maybe 650. They are significantly larger. We believe there are huge advantages in having a smaller, more cohesive environment with lots of student/faculty interaction, and lots of opportunities for students to learn with and connect with heir colleagues. Yale is similarly small. Chicago and Stanford are actually a little bit smaller than us.
The number of people taking the LSAT has declined by 25% in the past two years. What  message does that send about the best and the brightest seeing law as a career option?
You can’t react to one or two years. You have to step back. We’ll have well over 5,000 applications for 240 places. If you look over the sweep of the last decade in 2000 we would have had 3,200 applications. So we are drawing large numbers of top law students and the quality of our incoming class is as good as it has ever been. Yes, there are changes in the overall numbers. When the numbers went up in the early 1990s, we didn’t grow the class then. Applications bounce from year to year but we are up reasonably close to the high.
Is there anything that worries you about the legal academy today?
The legal profession is going through a lot of changes. You can see the nature of legal services are changing. The legal academy has to be sensitive to all of that. I think my colleagues are. We clearly need to be thinking very hard about what the careers of our graduates look like not just three years from now but five and ten years from now and how best to position them for what a legal career will look like then.
What changes have you seen in the 13 years since you’ve been dean of one of the world’s elite law schools?
Well, I put on weight. I don’t get to the gym as often as I used to. The hair isn’t there the way it was. Those are the changes that I feel most personally and deeply.
More seriously, over the last 12 years, there clearly has been a move to do more with other fields outside of law. There has been a move to offer more practical opportunities for students and that is probably true at all institutions and certainly law has gone more global. People understand that legal practice lawyers and everyone else are far more global. Business schools went global in a bigger way ahead of law schools because obviously businesses are not as limited to legal jurisdictions. So there was a recognition that they had to be more global. But law schools have now become much more engaged in the world, and they’ve become more interdisciplinary and concerned about providing practical opportunities for students.
Is the market requiring greater specialization which is forcing law schools to reach outside of law?
Two of the biggest drivers in the change in what lawyers do is first, far more specialization and a need to understand the substantive field in which a lawyer operates. So if you are going to be an intellectual property lawyer, you need a familiarity and understanding of the technology you’re working with. If you are going to do corporate law, you need to understand finance which has gone through a revolution since I was in law school. The ability to understand those changes and what motivates your clients is critical. Health care. Biotechnology. Again, in all those areas, lawyers need to be more knowledgeable about what is driving their clients and the people they are working with.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.