COMMENDABLE CONDUCT AWARD

Regular readers know that I’m often critical of many law school deans. But when one of them gets it right, let’s give credit where it’s due. As the glut of new attorneys persists, the University of Kansas School of Law Dean Stephen Mazza became the latest dean to announce significant reductions in incoming class size. With that action, he has earned a “Commendable Conduct Award.”

Not the first

The University of Kansas isn’t the first to implement such cuts. Last year, Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings School of Law announced a 20 percent reduction in class size for the fall of 2012.

“The critics of legal education are right,” Wu said. “There are far too many law schools and there are too many law students and we need to do something about that.”

George Washington University, Albany Law School, Creighton University School of Law, and Loyola University Chicago School of Law have reduced entering class size, too. In March, Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel Rodriguez said his school would reduce the fall 2013 class by 10 percent. “We can’t ignore the destabilizing forces that the legal industry is facing today,” he said.

KU deserves special praise

All of these efforts to reduce the size of entering classes are commendable. But there are several unique aspects to the University of Kansas announcement that make it especially noteworthy.

First, the reduction as a percentage of enrollment in prior years is large: from 175 students graduating this year to a target of 120 students for the 2013 entering class and for the foreseeable future.

Equally significant, it appears that KU didn’t have to take its laudable step. The dean said that applications were down only about 10 percent — far less than many other schools. Moreover, an impressive 82 percent of 2012 graduates secured long-term jobs where a JD was required or preferred — far above the national average.

As an added bonus, a KU legal education is a relative bargain compared to many other schools: $18,600 tuition for full-time students who are state residents; $31,500 for out-of-state.

Motivations matter; outcomes matter more

Everyone expects that the decline in the number of law school applicants will produce lower average LSATs and GPAs for the entering 1L class. That, in turn, would hit the selectivity component of a school’s overall U.S. News ranking. It’s possible that some deans have reduced entering class size as part of a strategy to protect their rankings. But if the overall net outcome is that law schools as a group produce fewer lawyers three years from now, then the rankings may have helped to mitigate damage that they have caused since their first appearance in 1987.

Ay, there’s the rub. Will there be fewer total law graduates, or will other schools (and new ones in the pipeline) enroll the students that KU and others don’t accept? Indeed, will some schools expand enrollments solely to increase their tuition revenues? Asking those institutions to consider the long-term well being of the marginal students they recruit, or the sad state of the profession itself, would be asking too much, I guess.

One way to counteract the agendas of deans who refuse to do the right thing is to recognize those who do. Even more important is the task of helping prospective law students make informed decisions before they apply to law school. Over time, perhaps more of them will take advantage of increased transparency to assess realistically their own suitability for a satisfying and successful legal career. But at any age, encounters with confirmation bias are never easy.

Meanwhile, kudos to Dean Stephen Mazza and the University of Kansas School of Law. He’s been dean only since April 2011, but he’s already making a profound difference in the way that matters most — one person at a time. (And thanks to one of my regular readers who brought Dean Mazza’s announcement to my attention.)

THE LAW SCHOOL QUANDARY

Law school deans are getting conflicting advice. Let’s sort it out.

“Provide more practical training” has become the latest mantra. At the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, Susan Hackett, a legal consultant and former general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, argued for a year of executive-style classes covering business topics and skills. Here’s a better suggestion: students seeking a business school education should attend business school.

Meanwhile, according to the National Law Journal, Peter Kalis, chairman of K&L Gates, said that some current law school criticism is misplaced: “I believe law schools should concentrate on the education of law students from the perspective of acculturating them in the rule of law. Law students should spend that time being immersed in and becoming familiar with common law subjects.” More fee simple, anyone?

Finally, a Northwestern University law professor and a first-year Kirkland & Ellis associate offered a dramatic solution to the shortage of attorneys. You probably didn’t know there was one. Although the U.S. already leads the world in lawyers per capita, the authors concluded that allowing colleges to offer undergraduate law programs would: 1) reduce law school tuition to zero (for such students); 2) produce more lawyers; 3) cause some attorneys to charge lower fees; and 4) assure broader access to legal services for lower- and middle-income Americans. While not prohibiting law schools from offering today’s $150,000 J.D. degree programs, the plan would put most law schools out of business.

Where to begin? One reason the United States has too many lawyers is that law school has long been a default solution for college students. But when youthful expectations clash with the harsh reality that most attorneys endure, career dissatisfaction results. Allowing poorly informed undergraduates to pursue a law degree right out of high school would be exponentially worse — for them and the profession. (Commenters to the on-line version of the article destroyed the authors’ cavalier comparison of their scheme to the UK system. If you’re wondering why The Wall Street Journal editorial board published such a flawed piece, you’re not alone.)

What do students think?

At the same time, today’s law students like the education they’re getting. According to the recently released 2011 Law School Survey of Student Engagement of 33,000 current students at 95 law schools in the U.S. and Canada, 83 percent of respondents said that their experience in law school was “good” or “excellent.” Eighty percent said they definitely or probably would attend the same law school if they could start over again. Maybe most of these students will join the ranks of unhappy scambloggers when they can’t get jobs to repay their loans, but for the moment they’re satisfied.

But the same study revealed that 40 percent of students felt that their legal education had so far contributed only some or very little to their acquisition of job- or work-related knowledge and skills. In other words, some like their law school experience, even if it’s not equipping them in a practical way for positions they hope to obtain.

A final point may resolve this apparent contradiction. When students seek their first law jobs, curriculum makes little difference. Candid big firm interviewers admit that, except insofar as a particular course might give a recruit something interesting to discuss in an interview, subject matter is irrelevant. In fact, dramatic curriculum innovation is underway at many schools and, however worthwhile it otherwise may be, affected students haven’t become more desirable to prospective employers:

“There’s no employer out there right now — not law firms, not the Department of Justice, not the ACLU — that are seeking out these graduates,” Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William Henderson observed at the AALS meeting. “These programs haven’t affected hiring patterns. It’s still all sorted out with credentials. It’s based on the brand of the law school.”

If the vast majority of students are happy with the law school experience and changing it won’t improve their job prospects, perhaps the legal academy and its critics should consider focusing attention elsewhere. Here’s an idea: Provide prospective law students better information about the real life that most lawyers lead. For too many of them, it comes as an unpleasant surprise. Forewarned is forearmed.