By Amanda Robert
In the past two years, many law firms laid off partners and associates. Many stopped hiring, or - as shown by the Chicago Lawyer 2010 survey of the largest law firms in Illinois - decreased first-year associate salaries for the first time in years.
Despite this turmoil and an uncertainty over whether jobs and salaries will rise again, the deans of five Chicago law schools report that student enrollment shows no signs of slowing down.
In a recent roundtable discussion, John E. Corkery, dean of The John Marshall Law School; Harold J. Krent, dean of Chicago Kent-College of Law; Michael H. Schill, dean of University of Chicago Law School; Warren D. Wolfson, interim dean of DePaul University College of Law; and David N. Yellen, dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law (who participated via conference call) discussed how changes in the economic climate and industry standards affect legal education.
Here is a portion of that discussion:
What is the biggest way legal education has changed in the past five years?
Schill: Five years is a very short period. I would have given a different answer if it had been 20 years.
I think that over the past five years, there has been a combination of greater emphasis on and discussion about skills training, as compared to analytical training .
More and more schools are thinking about curriculum reform, with both international courses in the first year, as well as administrative law courses in the first year.
Corkery: The changes started before five years with the emphasis on international law . We send students all over, students come to us from all over . Also, I think alternative dispute resolution is beginning to get some traction, and the view of law as a problem-solving entity, where you use the law to solve the problem rather than just use the law to determine what the outcome is or how to win.
What if we go back 10 or 20 years?
Yellen: If you back up more, as Mike suggested, I think a big change in the last 20 years is that we're much more in a competitive marketplace for students, faculty, reputation and money and all of those things than when any of us went to law school.
Wolfson: To follow up on that, the driving force that was not in existence 10 or 20 years ago was the magazine, U.S. News & World Report , which in many ways is driving legal education in America.
Corkery: If you go back 20 years, a big change has been the number of women in law schools. It's almost 50/50 at this point.
As others have mentioned, all law schools are kind of in an arms race. Everybody's trying to do everything better. More faculty, more students. I mean, Loyola, John Marshall, and Kent, 25 years ago, we were all one-room schoolhouses. One building, basically. And now, we're all expanding. Our faculties have expanded quite a bit.
Krent: Part of that is tied in with the experiential drive that Mike talked about. You need a very different faculty-student ratio when you're working on clinical projects .
I think in terms of curriculum topics, intellectual property has exploded in the last 20 years, not in the last five. Twenty years ago, most schools had two or three courses, and we probably have 20 now. That's a very significant expansion.
The other thing . is the movement toward interdisciplinary studies. We're not as much of an autonomous discipline as we were 20 years ago. There's much more of an overt reaching out to sociology, economics, philosophy, anthropology to see what insights we can glean from those disciplines in order to help not only our own faculty's scholarship, but the educational development for our students.
Schill: That's really been the major change of our generation. Law is no longer a discipline that you learn up in the law library. It's a discipline that is touching all parts of the university. Our students are taking courses everywhere in the university, and we want them to be doing that.
In addition, our faculty are increasingly composed of people with doctorates. With both J.D.s, in most cases, and with Ph.D.s in the fields that you mentioned. That's been a huge change, and to my mind, a change for the better .
Corkery: Over the last couple of years, too, especially in this turndown, you've seen at least some pressures for law schools to spend a little more time on the "L" word. Law, rather than necessarily some of the research-oriented or abstract concerns.
Schill: I make the claim, personally, that the interdisciplinary education actually makes you a good lawyer . The good lawyer is someone who understands the needs of their clients, and the needs of their clients are not necessarily going to be just legal needs. They're going to be business needs, economic needs, understanding the science underlying difficult intellectual property issues, so the education that they're getting from economics, sociology, science, ethics, philosophy, these are all things that will make people better lawyers.
Wolfson: Something else we're looking at that I don't think was looked at before is finding out from the law firms what kind of graduate do you want? What kind of new lawyer would best serve your purposes? Do you want someone who can write well? Do you want someone who can do research? Or do you want someone who can recognize clients' problems and deal with those problems right away, without taking extensive training? We're trying to find out what the market is calling for, and I don't think we ever cared much about that before.
If you could change anything about law school curriculum, what would you change?
Krent: We have evolved a system that has been heavily focused on litigation . What we have started doing, but not as effectively as we could, is also introducing students to transactional law and giving the same kind of love, care . to transactional issues as we've done very well historically to litigation topics.
Schill: I agree . We can learn something from business schools, and they can certainly learn things from us. One thing that business schools do much better than law schools is teach students how to work in groups, and we do not do a good job of that.
Ultimately, lawyers are going to work in groups, and they're going to have to work with clients. It's those softer skills, which I think we can improve on.
Now, if it was a choice between the softer skills and the analytical skills, I'd go with analytical skills any day of the week. On the other hand, I don't think it's a zero-sum game. We can open up and teach our students about business skills in general, and also about how one works with clients, how one works with other lawyers and business people.
Wolfson: I'd like to figure out some way to teach law students how to write. I was on the appellate court for 15 years, and the state of writing among new lawyers and young lawyers is deplorable. It just seems that legal writing, every time I've run across it in law school, is the crazy uncle in the closet. No one wants to get in there. The students hate it. They don't come out learning how to write. I would like to see that somehow change.
How does the economy affect the number of law school applicants?
Corkery: We have been up 3 or 4 percent the last couple of years. There are reports that people are up 10, 15, 20 percent.
Wolfson: Strangely enough, jobs are hard to get, we're more expensive than ever, tuition keeps going up, but we had a record number of applications this year.
Yellen: We were up 30 percent for reasons that I really can't explain. Applications have traditionally gone up in tough economic times. This time is consistent with that, although some schools have unusually large increases randomly.
Wolfson: What's happened, too, is the competition for - and this again is magazine-driven - high LSATs and high grade averages. Of course, [University of] Chicago doesn't have to worry about that, but the rest of us do. You need more scholarship money. The trend seems to be to veering away from need scholarships to what is happily called merit scholarships, which, in fact, is the buying of students. That's where all of the schools are.
Schill: I think that's certainly one way of thinking about scholarship assistance, but I think it's also making it possible for people to attend law school.
The sticker price of law school is now, at a place like [University of] Chicago, $47,000. That's pretty darn expensive. You do need financial aid of some sort to come to a school like that, particularly if you want to go into public interest law.
I think sometimes scholarships can be used as way to buy students. In other ways, it can just be thought of as ways to put together a group of intellectual stimulating, very able students and really create a class of people who are going to contribute a lot to discussion and to the school .
How has the economy changed the way in which you counsel students on jobs?
Krent: I think all of us are in the position that finding a job takes a lot more work than it used to. Students cannot afford being passive, because little is given to them. They need to think more dynamically about ways in which their search can continue, and that's a pretty big sea change .
There are fewer jobs at well-defined places, such as large firms. Large firms have cut hiring at least 50 percent in the past two years. That just means that there is more demand for non-big firm jobs, and more people competing for those. Students have to be much more vigilant and try to look out for their own interests, deciding whether they should go into non-legal work, government work, small firm, medium firm or large firms.
Wolfson: What I have suggested to many of our students is that they lower their sights a little bit as far as where they want to go. Think about the smaller firm, maybe the midsize, but certainly the smaller firm, or think about teaming up with some others and opening an office to start practicing law. The market in the big firms is just closed.
Corkery: I think when the economy picks up, law firms will begin hiring again. But I don't think they're going to be hiring in quite the same way they were, where the bigger firms would hire 30 to 40 second-year students and then make offers to those for the following year and continue to do that year after year. The stories I hear, a lot of the big firms are hiring contract lawyers at lower rates.
I think there's going to be a reset in the way law firms hire their new people, and we're not quite sure yet what that's going to look like. At least, I'm not sure.
There is a lot of talk about widening the diversity pipeline, but with the cost of legal education, how is that possible?
Wolfson: It's a real problem, and it goes back to what I was talking about before. As we veer away from the need-based scholarships to the merit scholarships, it affects diversity. The people who need it most are the people who don't have very high LSATs and very high grade averages. It's a squeeze, and it's a real problem, which we don't have the answer to yet.
Corkery: It's not only diverse students who are finding it difficult to pay, it's other students, too. The question is, should they incur this $150,000 expense in the belief that two or three years from now, things will be better? That's not an easy conversation to have with people.
Wolfson: There's a dissenting view.
Schill: It's not a dissenting view. I think to some extent, we're talking about things as if they're monolithic. Either the job market is monolithically bad, or that diversity is difficult.
Students vary greatly in terms of their qualifications and over how they do in law school. I think there are a lot of students, and I can only speak for my experience at [University of] Chicago, that there will be almost no difference in this economy versus the other economy of three years ago. The large firms are going to be after them just as much, and the job market isn't dead in the large firms. I think that expectations about salaries may be a little different at those firms across the board .
Some students will have to work a little harder at finding jobs, and some students will have to work a lot harder at finding jobs. That will vary both by how they did in law school and also the law school that they went to.
But also thinking about diversity in terms of classes, if you're a student from a diverse background, and you have done well in college, you will be a student typically who gets a significant amount of financial aid. In essence, if you have not done well in college and are not going to get a scholarship, then you're in the same boat as you would be in if you're a majority student who hasn't done well in college.
Yellen: No. 1, I think law school is more expensive than it ought to be. Like all of higher education, tuition has gone up faster than inflation for decades now. That's principally because we all have tried to do more and more for our students, and they were able to afford it, because of easy access to student loans and a good job market. There has to be a cost-control for all but the richest schools.
In terms of diversity, in particular, although cost is an obstacle, I think the much bigger obstacle is what happens at the elementary, secondary and college level. By way of example, only about 6 or 7 percent of college graduates are African-American. Which means that not nearly enough African-Americans are getting quality education at all of those steps that make them ready to go to law school. Until we fix those problems, we're all fighting over an all too-limited pool of diverse candidates.
Corkery: David, if you could do one thing, what would that one thing be to cut costs in legal education, given the cost structure we're in and the fact that the major cost is people?
Yellen: Wait, we get to ask each other questions, John?
This is against my interests to say as a dean, but the truth is that teaching loads at many of our law schools are too low. Our faculties have grown faster than they would in a different market.
We all are greatly advantaged by the fact that it's very difficult to open a new law school, so there really isn't much in the way of price competition. Teaching loads are a lot less than what they used to be, and over time, you're going to see that, for many schools, not all schools, begin to creep back up a little bit.
Corkery: To about 12 hours a year? Or 11, something like that?
Yellen: The average now is about 11, 12 hours. You compare that with other disciplines, and we're way on the low side.
Schill: I don't necessarily agree with that. Again, it's differentiated by school. Our teaching loads are similar to other parts of the University of Chicago.
The comment about how hard it is to open a law school, I am constantly amazed that any new law schools are opening in this environment, and yet they're opening. I don't understand it. The demand for lawyers is going down rather than up, and you're still having law schools open.
Yellen: Although, most of the law schools that were planned and in the pipeline in the last few years have been put on hold or taken off because of the economy.
Schill: Well, that shows some rationale. If I can just step back to diversity again, because it was the subject that we were talking about, I think that all our schools around the table are committed to diversity. We will do whatever it takes to create a diverse class, whether that means financial aid, whether that means outreach, whether that means academic support in our schools.
Each school will have to look at its own applicant pool differently and come up with whatever it needs to ensure diversity in the school. It's too important an objective not to be committed to, and it's also, quite honestly, an objective that if we ignore, we do so at our peril .
Many lawyers have said they didn't get a practical education in law school - what do you say to that?
Wolfson: It depends on how old they were. When I went to law school, I was completely unprepared to walk into a courtroom. Today, I think that's different, because of all of the skills courses, the clinics, the centers, practical training . I don't think it's a problem.
Schill: I never hear that complaint. Never. Our alumni at all ages are just incredibly proud that they got what we would claim is the most rigorous legal education that you could get anywhere in the country.
Do they ever say, "I never learned what color paper to put on a complaint or how to write a complaint?" I literally have never heard that before. Maybe it's that we do focus on law as well as interdisciplinary topics, but I also think that if you don't learn how to think analytically in law school, you will never learn how to think analytically. .
Krent: To put a little spin on that, I think that at least in the last two years in terms of economic pressure, there is more of a premium on having new hires get it quickly. There is a slight trend that if you don't catch on yourself about the practical side of law, there is less leeway afforded by law firms. Law firms famously used to let people hang out for three to five years to see if they would come together and make the grade before they start making some tough decisions. Now, sometimes, it's six months.
That suggests that yes, you can learn the color of an amicus brief, which is green by the way, on your own. But on the other hand, if you can't figure that out in a quick amount of time, then your leash has been shortened.
Corkery: I think it's not just the color of paper, it's certain course skills that law firms would rather see more of rather than less of. Writing and certain analytical skills, being able to work together well.
Schill: I think law firms aren't sure what they want. Whenever I've gone to a bunch of roundtables with hiring partners at law firms, some of the time they say you're not doing enough.
Then when you ask them what if [we] did this, they say, "No, we want to do that in-house." The only thing that everybody says, the only thing that there's a consensus about pushing back to the law schools is writing. Everyone agrees, and that's actually something we can do effectively .
How competitive is it among law schools?
Wolfson: It depends on the law school you're talking about. We don't compete with the University of Chicago. We do compete with Loyola and Kent and John Marshall for basically the same students.
The competition takes the form of merit scholarships, because the schools are pretty much the same. They all do quality education, they all have strong faculties. Some facilities are better than others, but basically it comes down to merit scholarships.
Corkery: Who would be your competitors at Chicago?
Schill: Typically, it's the top five schools. Harvard, Yale, Stanford, NYU and Columbia are the schools we typically compete with for students. Some more successfully than others. It's incredibly competitive. But every school will have a different set of competitors.