Panelists Say Law Schools Have Problems, But No Crisis

Jessica C. Salley

At a panel discussion entitled “Are Law Schools in Crisis?” Harvard Law School Assistant Professor of Law I. Glenn Cohen predicted that America’s law schools will decrease in numbers in the coming years.

After a New York Times editorial declared in November that “American legal education is in crisis,” law professors from Harvard, Indiana University, and York University refuted the editorial’s dismal claim at a panel discussion on Thursday.

Though they disagreed with claims of a “crisis,” the panelists said that law schools do face numerous challenges, such as rising tuition costs, a shrinking job market, and calls from reformers to integrate more practical skills and less theory into curricula. All of the panelists attributed the issues that law schools face primarily to the global financial crisis.

“We should theorize and teach about a world in transformation,” said Peer Zumbansen, a York University law professor.

Zumbansen said that law schools are engaged in a “frantic and restless catch-up game” in which they hire young professors to teach specialized courses. Many law schools now list more than 300 courses in their catalogs, he said, suggesting that they should set a lower cap on the number of classes that they offer. He also proposed a requirement that all law professors submit their curricula for scrutiny.

“That practice would, of course, rattle the cage,” Zumbansen said.

Indiana University law professor Fred Aman Jr. asserted that law school curricula have become not only more theoretical but also more skill-oriented in recent years.

“This is how it should be,” Aman said. “We need theory to know what our practical priorities should be.”

Aman said that law schools should develop a transnational curriculum that appeals to students worldwide. He predicted that while the overall applicant pool of would-be law students will shrink in the near future, law schools will see an influx of international students.

“There will be a new competition among law schools,” Aman said.

Harvard Law School professor I. Glenn Cohen said that there are three types of law schools.

The first, Cohen said, is typified by Yale, which produces “legal scholarship and legal scholars.” The second exists “almost exclusively” to teach public interest law; Cohen named Northeastern as an example in this category.

Cohen lumped all other types of law schools into a third catch-all category. In that group, he said, Harvard is “the best part of the undifferentiated product market.”

Apart from these three distinct types of schools, Cohen said that students who attend lower-tier law schools often express dissatisfaction after graduation because they had unrealistic expectations of the career opportunities they would find after completing their legal educations.

As law students face a shrinking job market and mounting student loan debt, Cohen predicted that law schools may mimic a transformation which dental schools passed through about 15 years ago: a decrease in the number of institutions accompanied by “increased scholarly output of faculty that was closer to practice.”

—Staff writer Juliet R. Bailin can be reached at jbailin@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 2, 2012.

An earlier version of this article said that Harvard Law School professor I. Glenn Cohen referred to Northwestern as an example of a law school focused on public interest law. In fact, Cohen spoke about Northeastern.

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