Saturday, March 19, 2016

The American Law School: Crisis and Opportunities in the 21st Century

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

American legal education is in crisis--that crisis is driven not by conceptual decay but by markets. Changes in markets--for law students, for law school graduates, for the consumption of legal academy knowledge by lawyers and judges, have changed the systemic foundations of contemporary American legal education--its organization model, its curriculum, conceits as an academic discipline embedded "in the world." The crisis, then, challenges the foundations of the contemporary legal education model --in its conceptual, institutional, and political aspects. Does this suggest a death spiral for the current one size fits all model of U.S. legal education? Does it point to a counter-revolution in the trends of legal education reform, inviting a typical panic response--the "Return to “Eden” strategy of coping with crisis--or to radical change? And what does that mean for the now decades old effort to internationalize the U.S. curriculum?

The crisis takes its character from the the source of its challenge in markets. Admissions of JD candidates have been trending down. Traditional high prestige jobs are trending down as well or holding stable even as the pool of graduates grows. Markets are both shrinking and changing, but the changes to not register on those metrics through which rankings are calculated. In the near term class sizes have shrunk in the face of the pressure of ranking.This produces substantial downward pressure on revenue and panic. That panic has produced predictions that even high tier schools may fail, attacks on academic freedom and tenuret may become more common (and persuasive), faculty terminations may be required, and research and teaching rethought. There has been criticism of for-profit law schools and a sense that even as the most elite schools may thrive (with a lock on high prestige students and labor market access), the rest will not. Those that survive will do so only through substantial subsidies from central university funds.

It was my great privilege to speak to a group of Japanese academics about my sense of the nature of the emerging "crisis" in American legal education. My thanks to Professor Hideto Fukudome, Department of University Management and Policy Studies, University of Tokyo, for organizing the event. The PowerrPoints of that presentation, The American Law School: Crisis and Opportunities in the 21st Century, follow. They may also be accessed HERE.

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