What Ails the Law Schools?

In January 2012, law professors from across the country arrived in Washington, D.C., for the annual conference of the Association of American Law Schools (“AALS”). It was an opportune moment. The legal economy was struggling. Graduates were begging for jobs and struggling with unprecedented levels of debt. The smart talk from the experts was that the legal economy was undergoing a fundamental restructuring. For these and other reasons, law schools were under fire, from both inside and outside of the academy. Judges – including the keynote speaker at the AALS conference himself! – derided legal scholarship as useless. Law school deans called the economics of law school increasingly unsustainable. Legislators and litigators alike were looking into what law schools said and did. Professors registered their alarm in high and low places. What many call the “law school crisis,” and more than a few the “law school scam,” managed to pierce the carapace of the AALS. A workshop on “the future of the legal profession and legal education” contained a number of panels whose descriptions promised “frank and open exchanges” about “the many interrelated issues raised by change in both the legal profession and legal education,” and “how the current restructuring of law practice likely will affect the organization and economics of law schools.” Yet, if there was an overall message conveyed by the conference, it was, in the words of Kevin Bacon’s character in Animal House, “Remain calm! All is well!” It did not escape notice that the AALS rejected at least two proposals for so-called “hot topics” sessions devoted to financial aid and other issues surrounding law schools, concluding that “there was not a strong proposal for a session on the legal education crisis” while finding room for a panel on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.