ABA Journal

The New Normal

D-Day for law school deans

By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

By now, it’s old news that law is in a pickle. But if you look at that dust cloud on the horizon, you’ll see the Deans’ Cavalry riding to the rescue.

For some time we’ve been saying that the recent “disengagement” strategy of law schools, aspiring to be uber-departments of American Studies or Political Philosophy while writing law review articles for other law professors, was an unsustainable deviation from the widely understood mission of a professional school. Now that unsustainability is self-evident, the good news is it’s an acute enough problem for law schools that most deans are embarking on innovative approaches to address it.

May 1 is D-Day because it’s the day that incoming students send in their D-eposit checks. As has been widely reported, applications were down 38 percent over the last two years. While many would like to imagine that’s a blip, there’s nothing whatsoever to indicate that the trend will reverse itself any time soon, in part because the trend is pervasive, i.e., the “top” undergraduate students (as conventionally measured) are declining in applications at least as fast as the overall drop, and because applications won’t improve until there is at least as much evidence that law is fixing its problems as there has been that we’re in a “crisis.”

Imagine the classic cartoon in which the window shades rapidly flip to the ceiling, and you’ve got the May 1 challenge, as admissions and financial aid offices compete over the same declining student population and tuition dollars. Assuming conservatively that the typical school will be down 10 percent in the numbers of their incoming class (most can only drop a little in the “academic index” without putting their U.S. News ranking at risk), that will likely translate into a 20 percent drop in revenues, as every school will compete in financial aid to ensure an attractive class and savvy and “demand-elastic” students will compare offers like SEC-level left tackles. So every dean will have to explain to their central administration how they intend to manage through a significant revenue drop, in the context of what is now widely seen as a ‘crisis’ for the profession and the legal academy.

Any dean who walks in with a “blip” story to placate their University President will be viewed as naïve at best and incapable of managing change at worst. So every dean, whether they passionately or provisionally believe it, will have to present a plan that shows them embarking on significant change.

The external drivers of change are clear, like New York’s likely reform to allow students to take the bar after two years of law school or sophisticated clients’ increasing unwillingness to pay for first and second year lawyers.

The broad outlines of schools reform are also clear. A third year that is much more externally oriented (especially if optional), greater effort to produce “useful-ready” (a term I prefer to “practice-ready”) lawyers, and a much stronger effort to connect to the profession, especially in-house teams who are driving advances in methodology and productivity, so they can train 21st century lawyers.

We’re seeing more and more of these plans popping up. I’d encourage everyone to check out in particular:

Colorado Law Action Plan

• Bill Henderson and his Indiana’s Blueprint for Change

• Northeastern’s strategic approach to legal training

• Arizona State’s “teaching hospital

• Michigan State’s ReInvent Law Laboratory (more from them next week!) (See Dan’s terrific slides which summarize briefly the overall state of play of change in law.)

Hastings Lawyers for America initiative

• And the contributions we’ve had and will continue to have from deans in this space. See contributions from deans Katz, Paul, and Rougeau.) (If you’re a dean who wants to describe your school’s initiatives in this space, just write to me or Molly McDonough.)

To me, this is an incredibly healthy process, showing the interplay of a professional community, a professional society, traditional and social media, and a market. A profession that is engaged in a continuing conversation with itself to sort out its problems is a profession we can feel good about.

Awareness of the problem is much more acute than it was four years ago, so it might feel like things are worse, when in fact that dialogue is leading to the very rapid evolution of solutions so the underlying reality is improving. Hopefully we can look forward to a day not too far in the future when the U.S. News criteria for law school rankings start to encompass innovation and educational effectiveness. Personally I believe I will be much more inclined to encourage my kids to go to law school a year or two down the road than I was two years ago.

Of course, for some faculty and perhaps a few deans, D-Day, may continue to mean “D-enial.” But they possess neither passion nor insight, just entropy and perhaps entitlement, and the next few years may not be kind to them. But most are smart enough to see the change as it unfolds and find a way to adopt.

The job of a professional school is to help the profession advance, yet law schools have until now been largely unchanged from what they were 60 years ago, perhaps imagining that the only profession they had to serve was the academy and maybe judges. Just as we wouldn’t expect patients or even practicing physicians to take primary responsibility for advancements in medicine, but we expect the medical schools to help lead the way, so we can’t expect clients and firms to help law advance without law schools “in the fight.”


Score another one for the New Normal.

Paul Lippe is the CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering.

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