There wasn’t much good news for law schools in 2013. What positive indicators have you seen that makes you optimistic for the future?
The job market for gradates seems to have improved a bit in each of the last several years. And if that trend continues or (let’s hope) accelerates, given the big downturn in enrollment, we’ll likely reach a point soon where more people will decide to go to law school as they see a higher-and-higher percentage of grads getting jobs shortly after graduation. Although applications are down considerably this year, I believe there is reason to think we might have hit bottom and it might begin to turn around. Not dramatically, I don’t think we’ll get back to near the number of applicants we had five years ago. And that’s fine. I think legal education ought to be smaller than it was five years ago. But I think there is reason to be guardedly optimistic because of some positive changes in the job market.
The other thing is, there have been some good studies lately, showing that, historically, a law degree is a really good investment. Things like the After the JD study done by the American Bar Foundation demonstrated that people who went to law school have good career satisfaction and have, on average, considerably increased income compared to those who don’t go to law school. So whether you’re interested in becoming a lawyer because of the economic benefits or the career satisfaction, there’s increasing evidence that those continue to be good reasons to go to law school. As that message filters out, it will counteract some of the negative criticisms of legal education. Some of which has been very legitimate, but quite a bit of it has gone over the top and has driven the downturn in applicants to be greater than what was warranted just by the employment situation.
In the recent Law School Survey of Student Engagement, two-thirds of students were happy with their academic support. However, a majority wasn’t satisfied with career services. Did that finding surprise you?
It isn’t really strange. Satisfying students on a personal level is a lot easier than satisfying them on a career level. It is hard because so many of our students don’t have jobs when they are surveyed. It’s understandable that they’re less satisfied with career services than other aspects of the support we provide. Until the outcome is there – a job they are satisfied with – they are going to be anxious and concerned. They’ll naturally wonder if there’s more that their school could be doing.
That doesn’t mean career services officers aren’t doing a really good job. Our students tend to be somewhat happier with our career services department than the national average. But still they’re less happy with our career services people than they are with our student affairs and academic adviser people. That’s just a natural result of the stress of looking for a job.
What is your personal opinion on law school rankings?
Almost every dean and professor will tell you that rankings do a lot more harm than good. Before I pile on the criticism, I understand the motivation for the rankings. Legal education (and law in general) is a hierarchical field in many ways. Even before there were the rankings, people knew which were the very best schools and had a rough hierarchy after that. But quantifying it in the way that U.S. News does causes a lot of real problems. Here are two examples.
First, they factor in the amount of expenditures per student, which I think is an irrational basis on which to measure law schools. (U.S. News‘ methodology rewards law schools that spend more with a higher ranking) But because rankings matter, and U.S. News counts expenditures per student, that’s helped add fuel to the fire of, ‘we should charge more and do more good things with that tuition money partly so that our students are happier and partly because it helps us with the rankings.’ That’s been a very negative impetus toward increases in tuition.
Second is, because LSAT, GPA and the quality of students matter so much to rankings, it’s had the negative effect of shifting so much scholarship money from being based on need to being based on test scores and GPA.
Rankings do a lot of negative things, but it’s deeply embedded in our culture to think about rankings and hierarchies. And U.S. News, I assume, makes a lot of money off the rankings, so it’s probably not going to go anywhere.
Last year, President Obama suggested that a two-year law school could be a solution to growing student debt. Do you see that as a viable solution?
I don’t think a two-year law program is a good idea, given the complexity of issues involved in learning to think like a lawyer. I don’t think two years of training is enough time to be turned loose to practice law. I do think the third year should be used differently than in the past. It should be much more of a bridge from the classroom to practice. And a lot of our schools are moving steadily in that direction. I think it is fair to say that third year of law school wasn’t used very well. But I don’t think two years is enough time.
In Iowa, the state bar is pushing to allow law grads to practice law in a limited capacity before the bar exam. Do you think this proposal is a good idea?
Let me comment in general on the bar exam process. I think it needs a complete engineering in several respects. Think about the typical bar examination experience. A student graduates from law school, then spends a couple of months cramming down all kinds of information and facts, regurgitates it back onto the exam, hopefully passes, and then basically forgets everything he or she learned from that cramming experience. I just don’t think this kind of bar exam process either measures who’s ready to practice or teaches students anything to use in the practice of law.
The second problem is that it is so hard to move from state-to-state. It’s easier to move between countries in Europe to practice law than it is among some of our states. So I’m very much in favor of a movement toward a national or unified bar exam. I don’t think studying state law really is what the bar process ought to be about. Again, you’re not going to remember what you crammed in for a test. Once you start practicing law and come across issues you don’t know, you research them and learn the law as you need to, as you go along. That’s how lawyers practice. The bar exam ought to be about measuring basic minimal competence to practice. And the current bar exam, in my opinion, doesn’t do that very well.