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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.•

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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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