Survival Strategies For Ordinary Law Schools


How Non-Elite Schools Should Stay In The Game

At Tipping the Scales, we’ve grown accustomed to reading “law school crisis” articles. They certainly grab headlines, even if they undercut our national pastime – lawyer jokes.
Yes, some may experience a smug satisfaction with the accruing debt and dwindling job prospects of lawyers, particularly recent graduates.
Like politicians, people hate lawyers… until they need a good one. That’s when they realize just how critical good legal training really is.
Alas, most critics are better at pointing out problems than identifying real solutions. That’s why a recent paper published by Cleveland State’s David Barnhizer caught our eye. A Professor Emeritus at the Marshall College of Law, Barnhizer actually shares nearly 30 strategies for how “middle range” law schools can become more effective and better adapt to a changing marketplace.
For Barnhizer, “schools such as Harvard and Yale will continue to exist without any real difficulty but will be affected by issues of demand, the incredible costs of attending such institutions, and applicant quality.” These schools have high rankings and “strong general reputations among applicants, lawyers, potential employers and public opinion.” However, law schools that are “qualitatively or territorially disadvantaged… are under the greatest pressure because they have neither the power of a strong reputation nor a unique identity sufficient to insulate them from the forces that are now in play.” These “ordinary” law schools also lack the endowments of elite institutions that can buffet them from downward trends.
So what is an “ordinary” law school? In Ohio, Ohio State University is the state’s flagship university. However, “Ohio is bordered by states that also have law schools producing graduates who will compete for ‘Ohio’s’ law jobs. These law schools include Wayne State, Michigan State, Detroit Mercy, SUNY Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Duquesne, West Virginia, Indianapolis and Northern Kentucky.”  Without the reputation (or endowment) of the top-ranked or state flagship schools, these schools face a “radically different” competitive landscape than their brethren.
This is particularly true for big law, where graduates of ordinary law schools face a disadvantage in competing for positions. According to Barnhizer, there is no “real difference that anyone can show to demonstrate that the quality of teaching going on at law schools considered among the elite is superior to that found at law schools thought of as ordinary.” The difference is based on “the perceived quality of the students who matriculate at the schools. It is also based on where the graduates end up being employed.”
Since hiring from elite institutions is self-perpetuating, Barnhizer notes that “employed graduates of certain law schools prefer to hire new graduates of similar law schools with the result that there is a systemic bias toward the most prestigious employers preferring to ‘reproduce’ themselves by hiring people with whom they feel most comfortable, i.e., ones from law schools considered elite. Given that such biases permeate the perception of the law school world and that from which applicants are drawn it becomes clear that the ‘strategic options’ available to ‘ordinary’ law schools are limited.”
As a result, “many law schools are entering an era in which their student bodies and faculties must shrink, where job security is reduced, life-tenure is questioned,” and higher productivity is expected. What will it take to survive in this normal? Here is a sample of Barnhizer’s solutions:

  • Removing the American Bar Association’s Accreditation Role: ”The ABA is a trade association whose first and primary function is to protect the economic interests of the legal profession. It has no business being in control of the ‘franchising’ of law schools and the defining of what must be contained in a curriculum, how long it must take to complete a legal education including counting the minutes required to be in attendance. There is a need to create a new mechanism for legal education and while the ABA might have some input into its activity as an interested party it should not be the main accrediting agency for legal education in America.”
  • Designing Local and Regional Consortia Among Law Schools: “This is aimed at reducing costs, combining resources and focusing on specific needs in that area. It not only reduces costs but can also increase the ability to offer innovative programs since each member of the consortium can focus on a unique area that can be shared among the members’ students.”
  • Creating an Attractive Specialized Market Niche: “This obviously includes such general niches as dispute resolution, trial and transactions. But it also includes possibilities such as health, medicine, insurance, small-scale practice concentrations, etc. The market niche approach is aimed at attracting applicants and serving the needs of the school’s primary employers of law graduates.”
  • Altering Institutional Scale: “It isn’t a simple matter of large versus small. Although there is an issue of the minimum size required to provide a quality education, there is also the question of the size of institutions that can offer at least a general legal education.” 
  • Using Shorter Term Contractual Faculty: “This is another way to cut costs while presumably attracting a cadre of lawyers and judges who may have a more focused understanding of law practice and critical social issues as played out in the system of applied law. This contrasts with the limited professional experience base of many ‘traditional’ law faculty members who not only enter law teaching with minimal experience but become increasingly distant from their connection with the world of law practice as they are immersed in the culture of legal academia.”
  • Eliminating Esoteric Courses: “This is a means of focusing educational attention more on what lawyers actually do as opposed to what current law faculty members want to teach. Students under the current system are being asked to carry the burden of funding faculty research or subject matter esoterica that in many instances make no contribution to their educational experience. Many seminars in such areas of faculty interest attract very small numbers of students to the point that they are contrary to a law school’s primary mission.” 
  • Law Practice Incubators: “…one innovative approach is to create an ‘incubator’ in the law school. This involves creating an internal ‘firm’ in which new graduates engage in law practice in ways that enhance their professional skill development. Given the concerns in the legal profession about a lack of adequate training and jobs for lawyers, and the fact that many new graduates are setting up solo practices because they lack alternatives, the ‘incubator’ can be a device to enrich the lives of new graduates while expanding the availability of legal services.“

For additional solutions from Barnhizer, click on the link below.
Source: Be Press

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