Every January, the Association of American Law Schools holds its annual conference at big hotel in a major city, at which a couple of thousand law faculty from around the nation gather together to participate in and attend dozens of panels, as well as to do the other things academics do at professional conferences, i.e., “network” in the halls, explore the local restaurant scene, etc.
A couple of months ago, I was one of a half dozen legal academics who were asked to participate in a proposed panel that would be part of the conference’s “Hot Topics” sessions. These sessions are put together relatively late in the conference planning process, and are intended to deal with topics that have become particularly timely in recent months.
The proposed panel, which the organizer went to a good deal of trouble to put together, was entitled “Beyond Transparency: The Crisis of Confidence in Legal Education.” The other panelists were all people who have published serious critiques of the state of the contemporary American law school. These critiques come from a variety of perspectives, but broadly speaking all share the view that, given the changing economics of legal education and legal practice, American law schools need to make major changes in the way they operate, and that the sooner legal academics acknowledge this, the better.
Last week the AALS committee in charge of such things rejected the proposal, giving as its reason the existence of a full day workshop on “The Future of the Legal Profession and Legal Education: Changes in Law Practice: Implications for Legal Education.” According to the committee, the proposed panel was seen as conflicting with that program.
On a personal level the committee's decision comes as something of a relief, since I wasn’t planning on attending the conference until I was asked to participate in the panel, and I had no desire to fly half way across the country -- the conference is in Washington DC -- in the middle of the winter to hang out with a couple of thousand other law professors.
On a more important level, this outcome gives some indication of how serious the AALS is about encouraging any real discussion of the crisis facing American legal education. After all, the AALS is essentially a trade association, organized for the purpose of protecting the perceived economic interests of its members, and as such it will be as enthusiastic about encouraging serious critiques of the basic structure of legal academia as the National Cattleman’s Beef Association would be about a proposal they distribute free vegetarian cookbooks to the American public.
It's true that in the long run this kind of thing probably makes very little difference – it’s not as if the AALS’s bureaucratic denialism is going to improve the job prospects of law graduates or lessen their debt loads – but it’s worth noting as a small instance of just how much resistance there is among the official representatives of legal academia to any discussion of the crisis facing law schools.
That crisis, it bears repeating, has two major components (as well as many more minor ones):
(1) American law schools are graduating around twice as many prospective lawyers per year than there are jobs for new lawyers, and this ratio is unlikley to improve in the foreseeable future.
(2) For many years now the ever-increasing cost of legal education has ensured that an ever-increasing percentage of those graduates who do manage to get law jobs will be unable to earn enough to justify the cost of their legal education.
If both of these assertions are even roughly correct – and I have yet to see any plausible argument for a claim that they’re not – it would seem to follow that American law schools should be graduating far fewer people than they do at present, and that they should charge, on average, far less than they currently charge for the privilege of acquiring a law degree.
Again, it’s not surprising that the people who run the Association of American Law Schools don’t really want to talk about any of this if it can possibly be avoided. If I were them, I wouldn’t want to talk about it either, since a candid analysis of the state of American legal education tends to lead to the conclusion that perhaps half of the AALS’s member institutions should go out of business, while those in the other half need to start providing the services they provide at a much lower cost.
(1) Since he's identified himself in the thread, I'd like to thank Jim Milles for the work he put into trying to make the proposed AALS panel happen. I also agree with Paul Horwitz that it's a sign of progress that various legal academics are beginning to signal they believe the current problems with American legal education require much more than status-quo-regarding tweaking at the margins.
(2) I'm going to start taking a more aggressive attitude toward trolling in the comments. Troll Detective's comment regarding this subject is largely on point.