Zombie Law Schools

I thought I’d try my hand at some posts on the state of legal education.  I’m not sure that I have anything original to say, but maybe I’m wrong.

Here is the first observation that I want to make.  Everybody knows that law school applications are way down.  You would think that this would lead to a contraction in law schools.  But that has not happened.  Instead, MORE law schools are opening.  How can this be?

The answer is that law schools are profit centers for universities, and therefore there is a powerful interest in creating them or keeping them going.  Most university departments lose money.  Revenues are concentrated in professional schools or a handful of departments that generate grants–sciences and engineering. Moreover, many universities want a law school because, as one administrator told me, it makes the campus “look better” for undergraduate and graduate applicants.

What this means is that any law school that is connected to a university will not be allowed to fail, even if the same school standing alone would.  These zombie law schools are going to prevent the market from clearing, with adverse consequences for faculty and students.  More on that later.

You may also like...

10 Responses

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    This theme might lead to a book on the history of law schools in America and how some Zombie Law Schools of the past transformed into “Human” or Mainstream Law Schools over time. In the past some traditional (“mummified”?) law schools considered new ones as market threats, “with adverse consequences for faculty and students” that actually improved the legal market. Perhaps now it’s different? Consider that mainstream law schools are offering their graduate tax programs online. Perhaps this trend will extend to basic law school offerings with robotic (Zombie?) law professors. Who knows, maybe in a couple of generations a Zombie Law School may produce a member of SCOTUS.

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    So, law schools are the academic equivalent of the football program.

  3. Joaqin Dead says:

    “The answer is that law schools are profit centers for universities, and therefore there is a powerful interest in creating them or keeping them going.”

    True, generally, but that’s probably not the dominant explanation. More likely the challenge you describe — the drop in admissions — was not so glaringly obvious when the plans to open were decisively set in motion, and momentum is a significant factor. That also better explains the continued interest in opening unaffiliated law schools, which are well represented among new openings.

    Mainly, though, I write to resist the inexact or undertheorized use of “zombie law schools.” You mean that they are hard to kill, I think, and perhaps ought be dead or never born. But a “zombie” nature should be attached to things that were once alive and now persist in some state of being despite an intervening loss of life. This is a poor way of describing things that are being newly born despite hazardous living conditions, even if they are hard to kill or susceptible to a mysterious contagion.

  4. Marc Luber says:

    I agree with @Joaqin that the plans to open these schools were likely in motion well before the crash in admissions. But I agree, Gerard, it doesn’t help to clear the market and improve prospects for faculty and students.

    However, I believe that all of this pressure on the schools is a good thing in the long run for both students and the institutions. Schools will be forced to provide added value to students that was traditionally missing from most legal institutions: more focus on real life. The lack of practical skills and career education taught in law school has been a missing piece of the JD experience for too long. When times get tough, innovation leads to survival. I think the schools who embrace change in this area, showing that they will deliver more practical tools than the school next door, will win over the hearts and minds of potential students. This will strengthen the institution and will in turn provide a more valuable education to the students.

    Gerard – my 1st cousin is a 1st year at your school (IU)!

  5. Ray Campbell says:

    Not all law schools are profit centers – I’ve heard of one law school that’s currently getting nearly an eight figure annual subsidy from the main university. Law schools were profit centers when law school mean large lectures, no clinics, skimpy legal writing instruction, and few expensive assistant and associate deans running around, but those days are gone. The current seminar/clinic/deanlet model burns money that must be met by tuition dollars (few research grants out there for law professors), and those tuition dollars are falling at many schools as potential students pursue other paths.
    The crisis at law schools is but one face of a larger crisis that is afflicting pretty much all of higher education, and especially those parts not funded by research grants. It’s not only law students who are running up huge debt burdens, and it’s not only law students who struggle finding jobs. We are in the early innings of students responding to a mismatch between tuition levels and benefit conferred, and it may take a while to play out. My guess is that that in coming years some university presidents are going to be confronted with tough choices, and law schools will need to justify their existence along with everyone else.

  6. PrometheeFeu says:

    “What this means is that any law school that is connected to a university will not be allowed to fail, even if the same school standing alone would.”

    If a school is a profit center, why would it fail if it stood alone?

    “These zombie law schools are going to prevent the market from clearing, with adverse consequences for faculty and students.”

    How could there be adverse consequences for students from there being an over-abundance of law schools? It seems to me this would push tuition down which is a very good thing for students.

  7. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Good questions. First, the stand-alone law school can’t get bailed out when the market turns down. Second, the zombie law schools are bad for the students because they lead to a higher supply if graduates to the market, though that is not as clear.

  8. Shag from Brookline says:

    The current market model may be the mega law firm. But if this breaks down – as law firms will never be too big to fail – then perhaps the market for solos and small partnerships/associations may make a comeback, serving local communities. Back in the early 1950s when I was in law school, it was thought there were too many lawyers but the legal community grew and thrived for a long time. Perhaps new modeling might be the result.

  9. Jon Weinberg says:

    @PrometheeFeu: What’s (potentially) bad for students is that university-affiliated law schools have limited ability to respond to the market by cutting tuition or radically changing their service-provision model; constraints associated with their role as units of a larger university make it hard or imposible to do either of those things. And they’re insulated from the market effects when they don’t, because they’re supported by the larger university budget. Non-university-affiliated law schools can do those things and have an incentive to try, but many of them are low-prestige, and actions taken by low-prestige schools won’t have much effect on the high- and middle- prestige segments of the market.

  10. PrometheeFeu says:

    @Gerard Magliocca:

    I’m not sure your point with regard to law schools being bailed out necessarily makes much sense. You’re saying that law schools are profit centers for universities. I think you’re also saying that there is currently a down-turn which is causing law-schools to no longer be turning a profit. (If the law-school is currently turning a profit, it doesn’t need to be bailed out) Now, if universities think of law schools as profit centers, they may very well expect this down-turn to be temporary and for the law-school market to recover and law schools to be once again profitable. If that is the case, efficiency demand that they “bail out” their law schools. After all, keeping their law school alive for a few years is much cheaper than trying to build a new one (including re-building its reputation) once the market has recovered.

    In other words, it sounds as though they are merely adopting a buy-and-hold strategy rather than attempting a very expensive form of market timing. That seems quite reasonable.