It’s probably fairly widely known, and not just in law schools, that most law schools have been facing, now for several years, a serious decline in applications. The result is particularly important for the schools themselves, but the results impinge on the wider academic enterprise as well. Again, the crisis is widespread, and I’m not talking just about my own university.
Law school faculties and leadership obviously confront the results most directly. They have to discuss whether, and by how much, to change qualification criteria to reduce the diminished enrollments — but almost never is any reasonable modification enough to solve the problem. They have to discuss some serious downsizing, which is always painful. University administrations more generally have to discuss how much, and by what means, to subsidize the schools and otherwise adjust to the diminished law school incomes at a time, obviously, when overall fiscal constraints are pretty dire. These are not easy decisions, and they are not just the subject of a single year or two.
A certain amount of forecasting has to be in the mix. Will schools rebound when economic times improve (and why has some existing improvement not yet registered at all)? Or, as some expect, and some desire, we are more permanently readjusting the societal need for lawyers? These are interesting topics on their own, and they have crucial impact on how much to press downsizing.
But there’s another angle, which I haven’t heard much about (always admitting that all sorts of things pass me by): what about some serious innovation in the roles law schools and law school faculty play in the wider university? This is a topic that’s concerned me long before the current crisis, as one contemplates the serious brainpower in the schools but the tendency for a certain amount of isolation. Is this not an opportunity to talk about more participation in interunit degrees and certificates, from policy to management to environment to critical infrastructure? Can we think of some fruitful roles in working with undergraduates, whether the latter are considering a legal career or not? Here’s the response that I would like to see more widely discussed, rather than just a hunkering down, and it’s a response which, ideally, can join some innovative law school types with counterparts in other sectors of the academy. These types of innovations won’t alone solve the budget problems, but they might help, and they might have wider and durable utility as well. We’re constantly asked, these days, to reconfigure the academy; professional schools cannot be exempt from rethinking.