Monday, August 20, 2012

Law School Management 101 (or how to deal with your school’s looming fiscal crisis)

If memory serves, when I started law school about 16 years ago tuition was about $13k per year, which made me very hesitant to enroll in the first place.  And by the time I graduated, tuition was fast approaching $20k per year.  I remember wondering how much longer most law schools could continue to exist.  In other words, who would want to go to law school at these prices?  It turns out that I was more price-sensitive than most, and my concern was actually about 10 years premature.  Much to my amazement, law school applications and enrollments kept climbing over the next decade, even as tuition continued to skyrocket well above the rate of inflation.

But today, as many non-elite law schools are charging around $40k or $47k or even $49k per year for tuition and fees alone, prospective law students are finally starting to take notice.  These tuition increases, combined with a gross oversupply of lawyers and the resulting dismal job market, have caused law school applications and enrollments to plummet.  The only thing surprising about this, at least to me, is that it took so long to happen. 

But what is completely surprising—again, at least to me—is how law schools are reacting to this sharply diminishing demand for their product: they continue to raise tuition, often at rates far in excess of inflation.  But sooner or later (and probably sooner), law schools are going to have to freeze tuition or even cut it if they want to continue to enroll students.  Instead of looking at the number of volumes in a school’s law library, the school’s student-faculty ratio, or whether the school offers interesting but impractical courses, students today, more than ever, are looking at price (tuition). 

But if a school is going to cut tuition (its income), it also has to cut operating costs (its expenses).  And for the approximately 180 law schools that are not considered “elite,” this should be their mindset: “We are not Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, nor will we be, nor should we want to be.  We have to do things differently and more cost effectively.”  Further, schools should proudly advertise that they are abandoning the traditional law school obsessions—also known as breaking their US News & World Report chains—and should explain to prospective students why this new approach is to their benefit. 

Here, then, is what the successful, non-elite law school of the future might advertise to its prospective students on its website:

  1. Professors:  Our professors put students first, and teach more classes per year than professors at any other school.  And we judge our professors on teaching and accessibility, not on publishing.  If they want to publish, they are free to do it on their own time.  This keeps your tuition down, as you’ll be paying for fewer professors and, further, you won’t be paying for professors to produce law review articles that you’ll never read. 
  2. Library:  Most law students graduate law school without ever using a single library resource.  Lexis-Nexis and West Law already give law students at our school full and free access to their databases.  So we don’t subscribe to journals, case reporters, and other materials that you can get for free with a click of a button.  (However, we will continue to meet the minimum ABA-mandated library standards, no matter how unnecessary and antiquated they are.)  And because our library is smaller, we don’t have to staff it with multiple librarians.  All of this keeps your tuition down.
  3. Course offerings:  We don’t run any costly “centers” or “clinics” or “programs” on things like maritime law, Japanese dispute resolution, or sports agency.  Instead, our limited clinical offerings are based on the fundamentals of law.  We want to provide you with the best, most cost effective education on topics that real lawyers in our region deal with on a daily basis.  This not only keeps tuition down, but will better prepare you to enter the job market once you graduate. 
The great news about this massive cost cutting plan is that it doesn’t require any real reform or the revamping of the entire curriculum.  Further, it doesn’t even keep professors from publishing.  If they really have something valuable to communicate, they can write their law review articles on the nights and weekends, like I do.  (Or, they can write during their summers off from teaching.) 

This plan does, however, force schools to abandon their status-obsessed pursuit of the US News & World Report rankings.  It forces them to come to terms with what they are (a regional school that trains students in legal theory and the practice of law) and what they are not (an elite law school that can charge its students whatever it wants to teach them social science and the law). 

Now is the time for non-elite law schools to cut back on the unnecessary luxuries (including their numerous bureaucrats, administrators, and assistant deans) that they’ve been accumulating in the last decade of law school excess.  Now is the time to get back to the basics.  Now is the time to think about what their customers (students) need, rather than what their faculty may want.  The school’s success—or even its very existence—may depend on it.

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