Disruption looms for law schools

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Mar 17, 2016

The news that law schools are in crisis is not new.

From the New York Times to BloombergView and from the American Bar Association to the Pope Center, many have written about the challenges law schools face. Graduates struggle to find jobs as lawyers, which has left many swimming in debt that they struggle to repay. Law schools have consequently had difficulty attracting top students. Enrollments and revenue are declining even as costs continue to increase. The result is a cascading storm that is crushing many law schools.

The roots of the crisis lie in law schools increasingly out of step with the legal job market. But what too few have written about is that the old job market—rich with lots of well-paid jobs for newly minted lawyers—is unlikely to return. The reason, as my coauthor Michele Pistone, a law professor at Villanova University, and I write in newly-published white paper for the Clayton Christensen Institute titled Disrupting Law School, is that the forces of disruptive innovation have arrived firmly in the world of legal services.

Disruptions are bringing three significant changes in the legal services market. First, they are creating more affordable, standardized, and commoditized services in an industry long dominated by opaque, highly customized, and expensive offerings only accessible on a regular basis to a limited part of the population. Second, they are allowing traditional lawyers to boost their productivity and perform the same amount of work with fewer lawyers. New technologies are able to do tasks that lawyers—particularly entry-level lawyers—performed traditionally. This is hollowing out the job market for newly minted lawyers. And third, they are breaking the traditional rationale for granting lawyers a monopoly on the practice of law. As Michele writes in her piece, “Disruption will not stop at the law school door,” that’s creating pressure to change restrictive, antiquated regulations, as they eventually do in highly regulated markets wracked by disruption.

If anything, the impact from disruption in the legal services market is likely to heat up in the years ahead as the disruptive innovations improve and march up-market to tackle more complicated problems. That means the pressure on law schools will increase over time.

Law schools represent the canary in the coal mine for the rest of higher education, as they face perhaps the clearest and most imminent threat.

And it could still get worse for law schools, but better for prospective students desiring a legal education.

As we write in the paper, despite all the changes impacting legal education, to this point disruptive innovators have not directly attacked law schools by offering new versions of a legal education. Yet the opportunities are emerging for this to happen.

Policy and licensure changes are creating new openings for people with legal training to practice law even if they do not have a Juris Doctor (JD) law degree and are not ABA-sanctioned lawyers. There are numerous nonconsumers who need access to legal services and cannot afford the current high-priced legal model. And there are numerous people who are nonconsumers of or overserved by the current law school model who would benefit from a more affordable, accessible legal education that doesn’t prepare them for a JD. In turn, with a more affordable model that requires they take on less debt, they could serve individuals who cannot afford legal services today.

With the emergence of online learning and the opportunity to pair it with competency-based learning and flexibly mix it all into place-based bootcamp type experiences that train students to practice law—the combination of which would be disruptive to higher education—legal education is awaiting a disruptive innovator that takes advantage of the current opportunity.

The big question we pose in the paper is will any current law schools set up an autonomous entity and drive this disruption themselves or will entrants emerge that disrupt law schools. It’s only a matter of time before we find out.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.