Non-elite law schools are in crisis. If people didn’t believe that before, they should now after Whittier College’s announcement last month that it would close its law school.
But the legal education landscape is not uniform. Different regions have different contexts in which law schools educate students. There are good examples of innovation occurring.
In the aftermath of publishing “Disrupting law school: How disruptive innovation will revolutionize the legal world,” a white paper that Michele Pistone, a professor at Villanova’s law school, and I wrote about the existential threat facing non-elite legal education, I embarked on a listening tour and spoke with a handful of law school deans from around the country.
All confirmed the bleak picture portrayed in the paper. Some used language that mirrored the innovator’s dilemma. They talked about their inability to innovate in a disruptive way because of a legacy business model with costs that they had to continue to support. They bemoaned the lack of cash from both their operations and the central university. They speculated about mergers to come to share services and reduce costs.
But some pointed to bright spots of innovation in law schools—both in their law schools and elsewhere. Given the negative news around law schools, profiling some of these perhaps offers some hope for a road forward amidst the gloom.
When painting a picture of a national landscape with broad brushstrokes, the nuance inside is often lost. That’s true in Arkansas. As opposed to much of the rest of the country, the region is clamoring for more lawyers. Nationally, the average ratio of population to lawyer is roughly 250:1, according to Michael Hunter Schwartz, dean of the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. In Arkansas, it’s 500:1, and in the state’s delta region, it’s 4,000:1.
Whereas nationwide the J.D. isn’t a “growth business,” as one dean told me, in Arkansas it could be (although the vast nonconsumption arguably offers interesting room for disruptive business to launch with non-lawyers). On top of that, the law school in Little Rock continues to enjoy support from the state, despite the perception of Arkansas. Its tenured faculty is also paid the second lowest in the nation. Consequently, its in-state and out-of-state tuition are relatively low, so students do not graduate with a lot of debt, which has kept the J.D. financially attractive and popular.
Accordingly, the Bowen School of Law is focusing on pedagogical and curricular innovation in its J.D. program, not on business model or revenue innovation.
A major thrust has been improving the employability of its graduates. Working with employers of law school graduates, the school introduced lawyer mentoring for every student. As part of a larger class on professionalism, students craft a career plan, get help with their resume, shadow a lawyer in their field of interest for 11 hours, and do 5 hours of pro bono work. Additionally, the professionalism class includes work on interpersonal skills and self-regulated learning. The school also created a required teamwork program based on feedback from the Bar about the importance of collaboration in the work environment. It also added an upper-level research course to ensure that the school’s graduates had good research skills. Among other innovations, the school also introduced a legal hackathon, the first non-coastal school to do so.
Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law has also innovated in its core J.D. program. For example, Dean Jon Garon, himself an expert on disruptive innovation, noted that a critical skillset students need is the ability to run their own law practices. This is important because most law firms actually have “the same profile as a family restaurant,” Garon said. “So much of the literature says there is an economic crisis in the legal marketplace. And then all discussions pivot to pedagogy. But that doesn’t change the economic realities.”
Consequently, Nova now has a course on financial literacy, so students understand not just accounting but financial principles. There’s a course on strategic management for lawyers, as well as a course to help lawyers manage technology in the firm. The idea is to build options for students to learn how to control their own practice amidst disruption.
Nova has also acted in a way that matches one of our recommendations by using online learning as a sustaining innovation to improve the J.D. experience. Traditional students are able to take a subset of their courses online, which makes the experience far more convenient for them by cutting out commuting time and costs and also allows Nova to serve more part-time students. Also of note in this realm are how the Syracuse University College of Law has partnered with 2U to offer a hybrid online program, and Mitchell-Hamline School of Law, itself a merger of two schools, is the first BA-approved law school in the country to offer a part-time, hybrid online J.D. program.
Nova has moved in line with another one of our recommendations by building new, non-J.D. degree programs to support non-J.D.s in fields that intersect with the law but do not require a J.D. degree, such as regulatory compliance.
Nova launched four online master’s degree programs in education law, employment law, health law, and law and policy. The programs reach professionals in different industries who are impacted by regulations—in education, for example, students can learn about the legal requirements around special education and individualized education plans. And they have been successful, as the programs draw in a couple hundred students a year, primarily from up and down the east coast, and bring in valuable revenue to support the overall law school.
Feeling the revenue pinch, other law schools have done the same. Although some of these programs don’t seem to have nailed the job to be done of prospective students and employers yet, directionally they seem on to something.
For instance, Northeastern’s law school has an online Master of Legal Studies designed for non-lawyer professionals needing practical legal knowledge in their careers. The Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law has doubled down on its rich legacy with technology in a variety of ways, including launching a Master of Intellectual Property Management and Markets. It also offers an online certificate in financial markets compliance.
The Regent University School of Law offers a master’s for legal training—both online and on-campus—for students looking to advance professionally or those seeking a practical academic credential to boost their marketability. The program offers 10 different concentrations—ranging from business to human resource management and national security. It has taken off, as it serves nearly twice as many students as its J.D. program.
Focus, focus, focus
One of our other recommendations was that law schools could specialize by creating programs that allow J.D. students to focus deeply on a particular area of law and not try to be all things to all people. Several deans I spoke to cited Vermont Law School as a great example of having done this, as it has the country’s top-rated environmental law program with a variety of environment-related law clinics and more than 64 courses related to the environment and environmental law. Its website and branding is almost exclusively focused on its leadership in this area as well, which makes for a very consistent message and, arguably, mission.
Shaping the future
The future for non-elite law schools appears bleak. Taking action that moves a law school out of the status quo U.S. News-ranking game is critical. There is no one “best practice” way to do this. Each law school will have to diagnose its own circumstance and act accordingly. Perhaps these examples can guide any schools that are paralyzed to start actively shaping that future.