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Dean's Desk: Legal education is navigating turbulent waters

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dean robertsOn April 24, the McKinney School was privileged to host a plenary session of the American Bar Association Task Force that Randy Shepard is chairing on the future of legal education. It was an eye-opening, interesting and, at the same time, unsettling day. Everyone who reads this no doubt knows that the legal profession is undergoing major change, and this is having a huge impact on legal education. The fact is that paying clients do not need as many high-priced lawyers as they used to. This has dramatically reduced the demand by firms and businesses for recent law school graduates, leaving many unemployed or underemployed while facing substantial (and nondischargeable) educational debts.

Many in the national media and blogs have seized on the tight job market and increasing student debt loads to mount a relentless campaign condemning law school as a scam and administrators and faculty as con artists, or worse, and dismissing the value of a J.D. degree. While there is no doubt that the world is changing, and that legal education must adapt, the hysterical tone of the criticism is over the top and unjustified. The J.D. degree remains the best investment anyone can make for a rewarding career and satisfying life. Nationwide, the unemployment rate for people with J.D. degrees is about 3.5 percent, far lower than almost any other educational category. The skills taught in law school (the ability to analyze, critically evaluate, effectively communicate and solve problems) are the skills necessary for success in almost every walk of life. Law school produces society’s leaders – I often remind people that among the graduates of the McKinney School are Indiana’s governor, chief justice, speaker of the House of Representatives, majority floor leader and minority leader of the Senate, one U.S. senator, and three Congresspersons – a near clean sweep of Indiana’s political leadership – along with at least 80 corporate CEOs in just this state.

Nonetheless, the virulent criticism of legal education has had an impact. Young people have heard the hysteria. There are even stories of pre-law advisers telling undergraduates not to go to law school. The result is that law school applications nationwide have plummeted. In 2010, there were 110,000 applicants to U.S. law schools and 55,000 1L students enrolled. This year, there have been less than 53,000 applicants (a decline of 52 percent in three years), and no doubt the number of 1Ls this fall will be down sharply for the third year in a row. There are some now who predict that soon, several lower-ranked law schools will go out of business.

Ironically, as there will soon be dramatically fewer new lawyers graduating, the job market for new lawyers has started a predictable uptick. How far and how fast this turnaround will occur is uncertain, but it may be that in the not-too-distant future there will actually be a shortage of new lawyers for the available jobs. But that is the future. At present, the sharp enrollment decline, which necessarily translates into sharply reduced law school revenues and looming structural budget deficits, coupled with the pressure on law schools to do more to make graduates “practice ready,” is forcing law schools to rethink their curricula, their structure and their business model.

The McKinney School is not insulated from these pressures. In fall 2011, we enrolled 312 first-year students. The 2012 1L class is 243 today. And applications are way down again this year – we estimate that the first year class in August will have roughly 200 to 220 students. We are accepting this reduction in order to maintain high admissions standards and ultimately to produce highly competent lawyers. But this leaves us with the challenge of balancing our budget while pursuing innovations that will better prepare our students to practice law. So we are reducing costs, which means a smaller faculty and staff, as well as eliminating operating expenses that are not mission-critical.

But we cannot simply cut our way to a balanced budget, so we are looking for new revenues as well. One opportunity comes from the demand we know exists for legal training for people, both in the U.S. and abroad, who intend to pursue other professions, like law enforcement, human resources administration, social work, non-profit management, etc. While people who do not intend to practice law are today less willing to invest three years of time and tuition, many will find that a one-year, 30-credit, masters degree is very attractive. The faculty has recently approved establishing a new Masters of Jurisprudence degree that we believe will both fill the need for legal training from which many non-lawyers can benefit (and thereby enhance the quality and skill level of our workforce) and help to produce new revenues for the law school.

At the same time, we are exploring new ideas. An Innovations Task Force will look at how to restructure the curriculum, particularly in the last year of law school, to prepare better students for law practice. An Online Task Force is exploring ways to integrate forms of distance learning into our teaching. And we are doing a detailed analysis of how we can enhance the quality of the student experience, better recruit more and stronger students, and increase private philanthropy from alumni and others who recognize the importance of the school to the community, state and nation.

At the end of June, I will be stepping down as dean and handing the reins to Professor Andy Klein. These last six years have been exciting, satisfying and just plain fun. I have come truly to love our students, the faculty and staff, our many loyal and generous alumni, and everyone in Indianapolis who have made my tenure as dean so wonderful. I want to thank everyone with whom I have worked and interacted for your cooperation and friendship, not the least of whom is a fellow named Robert H. McKinney. This is a special place and I hope everyone will give the same support and friendship to Dean Klein so that he can take the McKinney School to even greater heights.•

__________

Gary R. Roberts has been dean of the I.U. Robert H. McKinney School of Law since 2007. The opinions expressed are the author’s.
 

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  1. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

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