Law schools as borscht

Larry Ribstein —  29 June 2011

Zillions have linked to and millions have commented on the NYT Economix blog post on the supposed lawyer surplus.  Here are some further thoughts on the “lawyer glut” and its implications for legal education.

To begin with, the NYT numbers are unreliable.  They ignore, among other things, the facts that people take multiple bars, and that NY, a big “surplus” state, is a magnet for foreign students not planning to practice in NY.  Much more importantly, they look at “annual job openings for lawyers.”  The question, which I discuss further below, is whether that really captures the full value of a law degree in a rapidly changing market. 

Brian Tamanaha adds data that should cut more deeply into the hearts of the really important group (I’m referring to law professors, of course):  falling applications, rising enrollments.  So, he says, “with tuition high and job prospects low, it seems likely that the number of law school applicants will continue to fall–although it’s hard to say how far or for how long.” This summons a scary scenario: “schools will reach deeper in the pool to fill their classes, bringing in students with lower qualifications.” He concludes that “schools would be prudent to anticipate a cumulative drop in applications of perhaps a third from their high. * * *Law schools have enjoyed flush times for more than a decade. Tough times are ahead.”

But Steve Bainbridge responds that law schools may not adjust.  He says the self-interest of university presidents and influential alums produce a “classic collective action problem” with no market (given our regulated industry) to solve it.

I have a different take in my forthcoming article Practicing Theory.  The problem isn’t that we have too many law trained people and so should train fewer.  In fact, in our increasingly regulated economy, there is probably a gross undersupply of law-trained people. 

The problem is that regulation has fixed the nature of the product so it hasn’t adequately responded to shifts in demand.  The downward demand shifts have been produced by, most importantly, technology.  But demand is increasing for new kinds of law-trained people both at the low-cost end of service to the poor and middle class and the potentially high-profit end of producing new kinds of products and services (see Law’s Information Revolution).  Yet regulation has locked law schools into models that don’t serve these new needs.

In a real market, the supply side would change. As discussed in yesterday’s WSJ, if nobody’s buying borscht, make more horseradishPracticing Theory provides some specific suggestions as to how law schools might change their product.  These include training lawyers to interact better with other disciplines and to think more globally.  In other words, the answer is to change, not necessarily to shrink.  In the long run regulation will also have to change, but there are things law schools can be doing in the meantime. 

The other side of this is that if law schools can’t figure out how to make horseradish, law professors may go the way of borscht.

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

6 responses to Law schools as borscht


    Eric — Many students already are in what schools call “pre-law” programs, which leads to the same old b.a. that everybody graduates with. The problem is you can’t do anything with an undergraduate degree in “law.” I propose in my Practicing Theory article (among other things) to have an undergraduate law degree as a foundation for later training and certification in various specialties. This could produce people who are better trained for some things than generalist law students at lower cost, resulting in lower costs to consumers. Maybe, as you suggest, they should also be able to take the bar exam and be generalist lawyers. In either case the licensing laws would get in the way in the vast majority of states that require students to graduate from ABA-accredited law schools.


    What we need are undergraduate law degrees, like most of the rest of the world has. It’s a great liberal arts major, training in reading, writing, and logical thinking much better than any other major I can think of (econ is good for thinking, but not reading and writing).

    I don’t know who blocks having law majors. The first college to have it will attract lots of students. It will present a big threat to the Bar, tho, because people will start to ask why undergrad majors aren’t allowed to take the bar exam.


    Larry, you hit the nail on the head with this entry — “the answer is to change, not necessarily to shrink.”

    For institutions that commits themselves to understanding this more complex marketplace and preparing students to thrive in it, there is a huge opportunity to reshuffle the legal education hierarchy and create powerful new brands This type of education goes well beyond what we do now, which is information transfer of case law, statutes, and regulation. Legal education in its current homogeneous form does not provide an adequate basis for a competitive labor market that differentiates among law schools. So the market defaults to a sorting mechanism based around pre-law credentials (90% of the variation in the US News rankings is explained by LSAT scores). In terms of time and money, students pay a high price for this knowledge transfer and sorting process. Further, employers are underwhelmed by the product.

    But if a law school expanded its education to other disciplines and other legal systems and created a curriculum in which students learned how to worked across disciplines to solve problems cost-effectively (these are skills, not knowledge), then employers would see value-add and begin favoring one law school over another.

    The future of legal education is education Why? Because high quality education is enormously valuable in a complex, globalized, interconnected, heavily regulated world. It is a product that employers will buy and students will enroll to receive. Developing and delivering this type of education is a hard job, and a lot of law professors don’t want to retool to do it. So we fight the premise that change is necessary, This is a classic “who moved my cheese” situation.

    Because law schools are faculty-governed, it will take world-class leadership to take any law school in a serious “change” direction. Change requires trial and error retooling and/or hiring different people. This will be viewed as risky by law schools — we would prefer some version of the old days where the metric was scholarship. Yet, law schools that do nothing are going to take a lot of heat from students and alumni. And the private sector may step into breach and take market share. This is truly an epic structural change playing out before our eyes.


    While it’s true that the job prospect in law is pretty low, you have to consider all those students that go into this school on a whim, not taking into account the difficulty of graduating. I’ve met students that answered: “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” with “because they make a lot of money”. Talk about misplaced priorities.

    It’s a shame for those that actually follow this school out of passion for the job. There’s plenty that give up because of the grim future they would have after graduation with no job on the horizon. To them, I say, find a person in this field that inspires you. A few examples would be Sallie Manzanet-Daniels, Elizabeth K Lee or Nelson S. Roman, but it’s your choice in the end. It’s not really worth throwing away all those years of hard work and studying.

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