Former Brandeis President: Law Students Are Right to Worry

Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Everyone agrees the traditional law school model is under pressure: student debt has skyrocketed, and plummeting application numbers have law school administrators — at lower ranked schools, especially — wondering how to fill up class rolls without compromising student quality.

But not everyone agrees what to do about it. That was evident on Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Law Schools, where a handful of former higher education administrators and law professors talked about the changing market for legal education.

At a panel titled “Preparing Professionals: Higher Education’s Responses to the Demands of a Global Marketplace,” panelists, most of whom had discussed the future of the law school model, the need — and best ways — to innovate, and whether schools should be business-oriented in the first place.

The moderator was Blake Morant, Dean of George Washington Law School. The panelists were Natalie Kitroeff, a reporter at Bloomberg Businessweek; Frederick Lawrence of Yale Law School, formerly President of Brandeis University; Ellen S. Podgor of Stetson University College of Law; and John Sexton, formerly Dean of NYU Law School and President of NYU.

Big Law Business rounded up the best quotes from the discussion.

John Sexton

“To sit and pretend that we can all be what Harvard Law School thinks it should be is a mistake. The fact of the matter is there isn’t a need for everyone to be driving a Mercedes.”

“What is done in law school is a perfect capstone to a liberal arts education.”

“American legal education has to change the model from a market oriented model to a model that’s consistent with a liberal arts education.”

Needs are incredibly diverse, but we’re talking about a single justification for law schools, Sexton said. “Society needs more from legal education. We have to diversify.”

“The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has made a utilitarian argument for the arts. Once we’ve done that, we’ve sold our soul.”

Sexton said there are structural problems in “a system that says if you went to Oxford for undergrad you can come to law school for a year, but if you went to Princeton for your undergrad you have to come for three years.”

“The MBA is closer to death than the JD, and I believe the JD is close to death as a mandatory requirement.”

“The three-year graduate model of legal education linked to admission to the bar is untenable. We’ve made it untenable ourselves.”

Frederick Lawrence

“We used to tell students ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all work out.’ If we said that now, it would not only be wrong. It would be cruel. Students are right to worry about when they get out. We’re wrong not to take that seriously.”

“Graduate students are leaving with a debt load that’s bigger than my first mortgage by a factor of two.”

“In the future, students will look at your laptop and your iPad like you look at a slide rule.”

“We have 200 law schools. We’re not short on law schools. It’s not a radical prediction to say that when [at the AALS annual meeting] 10 years from now, or maybe not even 10 years from now, there won’t be 200 law schools.”

Ellen Podgor

Podgor said law schools should do a better job considering the practical needs of individuals for attorneys. With The Clemency Project, for example, there aren’t enough lawyers.

“There’s not a single course that I teach that I took in law school.”

Blake Morant

“There was a time that people assumed that going to college would maximize earning potential.”

“We’ve been caught in this conundrum of having to explain to students the value proposition of pursuing an education.”

“When I went to law school the value was an archetypal one: become a lawyer and work in a big law firm. I hope in the future success will be defined much more broadly, and be married to someone’s desires and abilities, so there is higher job satisfaction.”