Vermont Law School (Vermont) recently announced it had issued pink slips to 14 of its 19 tenured faculty members. This is not the first time a law school has terminated tenured professors for something other than sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Albany Law School, Charleston Law, and others have traveled that road, and several other law schools have shuttered. Vermont’s wholesale decimation of its tenured faculty is something different-- a clarion call to the legal Academy that its economic model is unsustainable for all but a handful of elite institutions. Students have borne the brunt of the model’s economic pain; now it’s affecting the other side of the lectern.
Excessive Borrowing and Economic Denial
It’s helpful to contextualize Vermont’s housecleaning by taking a closer look at some salient statistics. Before jettisoning the bulk of its tenured faculty, Vermont Law touted a 4.3: 1 student faculty ratio. That ratio might be viewed as a plus from the student perspective until one learns that tuition is $47,998 and the total budgeted cost is a whopping $73,407 per year. That brings the three-year total—exclusive of lost opportunity cost and debt service—to about $220K. A quick review of the school’s placement statistics reveals that for most students, this is a questionable investment. Vermont’s employment at graduation rate is 31.9%; median salary is $60K (for those with jobs) in the private sector and $47,979 in the public sector; and the law school is tied for #133 on the US News and World Report Ranking of Law Schools. No figures are available for Vermont’s average student debt, but it’s safe to infer that most graduates are at or above the $122K national average law school debt for students attending private schools (Vermont Law is private). Similar dismal statistical report cards exist at many other U.S. law schools.
Vermont cited fiscal constraints as the basis for the tenured faculty housecleaning. The law school’s recent $17M loan from the Department of Agriculture to lower the interest rate of its existing debt is, as lawyers say, res ipsa loquitor of its fiscal extremis. The ABA Journal reported that Craig Pease, one of the sacked professors, contends that “the institution has not stated that it faces financial exigencies.” Let’s hope Professor Pease does not teach bankruptcy or evidence. While it’s understandable that he is pursuing his legal and equitable remedies (and foregoing a settlement package), his contention that Vermont fails to meet its financial exigency burden itself flunks the giggle test. That level of economic denial is all-too-prevalent among law school faculty. Vermont’s action might just be that “Thanks…I needed that” slap in the face to wake them up.
The Unsustainable Model’s Burden on Students
The unsustainable cost of law school is nothing new to students—most graduate with six-figure law school debt on top of undergrad obligations. Let’s put aside other faults one could assign to the legal Academy—doctrinally-heavy curricula, detachment from the marketplace, most faculty lacking meaningful marketplace experience and awareness of its trends, the (ir)relevance of most legal “scholarship” (noted by Chief Justice Roberts), a “one-size fits all” pedagogical model, a recent building frenzy -- and focus on economics. Law school is just too damn expensive for all but the handful that can afford it and/or elite candidates who are given free/steeply discounted rides for ranking purposes. Let’s also exempt graduates of top-tier schools provided they are among a dwindling pool that land high-paying jobs. For everyone else, it’s reasonable to ask, “Is law school worth it?” Short answer: perhaps, but only if one can stomach the debt and has differentiated skillsets -- technological, business, linguistic skills, etc. -- to augment baseline legal knowledge.
The Law School Story: Escalating Tuition and Declining Prospects
The sad story for Vermont Law students—and thousands of others around the country—was not always this way. Net of adjustment for inflation, law students today pay 2.71 times what their predecessors did three decades ago. The job market was more promising then, too--in part because there was not a glut of lawyers and clients tacitly accepted funding on-the- job training for baby lawyers. Nor was there widespread consumer sentiment—prevalent today—that law schools do not train students for what the marketplace demands.
The Post-Financial Crisis World: A New Ballgame
The global financial crisis has transformed multiple industries-- law included. One of the many changes in the legal ecosystem has been a decline in the law school applicant pool caused in part by price and an unfavorable job market for grads.
Consider the employment picture of law graduates between 2007 and 2011, a prelude to what has occurred since. Apart from a handful of elite students with high-paying starting positions, the price of law school has continued to rise even as the job market has tightened.
The “full-time non- lawyer” category is a euphemism for jobs that don’t require a law degree—and its attendant exorbitant debt incursion and lost opportunity costs. The spike in the “part time” category is emblematic of the shift from full-time employment to the “gig economy” and its lower pay rates. The post-financial crisis world not only changed the legal buy/sell dynamic but also altered the employment landscape for all but a handful of law school graduates. Attention is misleading focused on “law’s one-percent” of graduates that are cashing in on the latest round of pay-hike insanity, but for most law grads are fiscally upside down holding a J.D. degree but lacking skills the marketplace demands. Meanwhile, the cost of law school continues to rise.
Remedies Exist, But the Academy Won’t Like Them
The broken economic model of law schools can be fixed, but not without pain to the Academy. Here are some recommendations:
Law schools must abandon the fantasy of training all students for identical careers. Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and a handful of other elites will continue to churn out federal law clerks and elite BigLaw associates, but other law schools should abandon the pretense of doing so. That means faculties should be staffed by those with relevant experience for the career paths of graduates. Law schools should be staffed—and priced—to serve their target markets. There’s no reason why Vermont Law students should pay the same for their legal education as Columbia grads. Why pay for a Bentley when you drive out of the classroom with a Kia?
The ABA must jettison its “one-size-fits-all” approach to legal education. That means revisiting curricula for all law schools, taking a more market-driven approach to what it means to be a lawyer today, and substituting competency and experientially-based training for expensive butts-in-seats-to-earn-diploma legal educations. (See SRA’s remake of the ‘Super Exam’).
Compress the law school curriculum into two years and have a third year of “residency” training.
Law schools operate with business standards of fiscal responsibility, accountability, and transparency. Applicants should be privy to a schools’ financials when applying. We are living in a business climate of ‘more with less’—without dilution of quality or risk. Law schools cannot be exempt from this standard and must take a hard look at what resources are required to prepare students for a rapidly changing marketplace. They must jettison unnecessary resources and be more accountable to students, both as to cost, delivery efficiency, quality of product, and outcome.
Law schools must do their part to address the access to justice crisis. Two stints teaching at elite law schools has confirmed that many students cannot pursue public service careers because of their crushing educational debt burden. The cost of legal education should not foreclose students from pursuing public interest jobs. A public interest track—and financial accommodation—is an initiative the ABA should consider.
US law schools should look to other countries that deliver excellent legal training without encumbering students with punishing debt. Why is Canadian and British legal education half the price of the U.S.? And why are law students in Europe and other parts of the world not saddled with the crippling debt of their American counterparts?
The ABA should look to other countries—notably the UK—where diploma-based legal education is no longer required and competency, experientially-based training is now an option (at a fraction of the cost)?
Law schools should embrace flipped classrooms, self-help, agile teaching tools, and experiential learning; make better use of their physical plants; forging closer ties with the marketplace and tailor curricula to its needs. They must revisit the goals, objectives, and relevancy of legal ‘scholarship’ as Chief Justice Roberts has publicly done.
Law schools must make legal education accessible to a more diverse student population. That means reducing the time and cost of legal education; drawing students from a broader pool of applicants, especially STEM graduates; and training for careers as legal professionals, not solely careers in “practice."
Overhaul faculty hiring criteria and skillsets and align them with the careers that students are statistically most likely to pursue upon graduation from that law school.
Forge closer ties with other professional schools including: business, engineering, computer science, medicine, and social work.
Cultivate relationships with the marketplace along the lines of ‘sponsored research’ that is a staple of other University disciplines.
Commit to lifetime career learning by providing professional “retraining” as part of their compact with students/alumni/ae.
There is little cause to celebrate Vermont Law's actions even if they were long overdue. Getting sacked is a devastating jolt at any stage of one’s career At the same time, the Vermont bloodletting puts the Academy on notice of something that can no longer be ignored: the economic model of all but a handful of U.S. law schools is unsustainable. Students, faculty, the profession, consumers, and society will continue to be adversely affected until meaningful steps are taken to fix it.
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Mark Cohen also publishes at Forbes and on his platform LegalMosaic and Law.com