Saturday, February 18, 2017

"Fourth-Tier" Legal Education

A common trend among law schools was to hire professors who had very little or no experience practicing law, but who had graduated from elite law schools.  Then the trend became hiring JDs who also had a PhD — preferably in the field of economics.  Then the trend became hiring candidates with PhDs only.  That’s right: law professors who never went to law school.  And unfortunately, the lower ranked schools, in a desperate attempt to keep up their peer-reputation scores in the US News law school rankings, followed suit and copied the trend.  In a 2012 essay titled Three Rules for Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, I argued that these fourth-tier schools should instead go in the opposite direction of the elites:

[P]erennial fourth tier (or “rank not published”) U.S. News schools, in essence, have nothing to lose, and would be the perfect candidates for a complete top-to-bottom overhaul of their professor hiring practices and their curriculum. Without the risk of falling in the U.S. News rankings—there is, after all, no fifth tier—and with no realistic chance of rising significantly, why not hire professors who are accomplished lawyers instead of Ph.D.s? Why not design a program that integrates meaningful skills-based training from day one, instead of treating it as a third-year sideshow taught by marginalized adjunct or clinical instructors?

So there is a real opportunity for some law schools to shun the rankings game—a game they never should have cared about in the first place—and instead produce lawyers who are ready to walk into a courtroom (or an administrative hearing room or a corporate conference room) and start practicing law competently from day one.

I might have been on to something.  In his recently published article, Philip Merkel writes that, “[u]nfortunately, many fourth-tier law schools have lost their way. Rather than embracing their responsibility to educate practitioners, they are trying to look, act, and spend like elite schools.” 

If law school reform is of interest — or even if it’s not, but you happen to be a dean or professor at a fourth-tier school — be sure to read Merkel’s article Scholar or Practitioner? Rethinking Qualifications for Entry-Level Tenure-Track Professors at Fourth-Tier Law Schools.

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