Commendable Conduct Award
Regular readers of this column know that I’m often critical of many law school deans. But when one of them gets something right, let’s give credit where it’s due.
As the glut of new attorneys persists, University of Kansas School of Law Dean Stephen Mazza became the latest dean to announce significant reductions in incoming class size. With that action, he has earned a “Commendable Conduct Award.”
Not the First
The University of Kansas isn’t the first school to make such cuts. Last year, Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings School of Law announced a 20 percent reduction in class size for the fall of 2012.
“The critics of legal education are right,” Wu said at the time. “There are far too many law schools and there are too many law students and we need to do something about that.”
George Washington University Law School, Albany Law School, Creighton University School of Law, and Loyola University Chicago School of Law have reduced the size of their entering classes, too. And in March, Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel Rodriguez said his school would reduce its fall 2013 class by 10 percent. “We can’t ignore the destabilizing forces that the legal industry is facing today,” he said.
KU Deserves Special Praise
All of these efforts to reduce the size of entering classes are commendable. But there are several unique aspects to KU's announcement that make it especially noteworthy.
First, the reduction as a percentage of enrollment in prior years is large: from 175 students graduating this year to a target of 120 students for the 2013 entering class and those that follow.
Equally significant, it appears that KU didn’t have to take this laudable step. The dean said that applications were down only about 10 percent—far less than at many other schools. Moreover, an impressive 82 percent of 2012 graduates secured long-term jobs where a JD was required or preferred—a figure far above the national average.
As an added bonus, a KU legal education is a relative bargain when compared to what many other schools offer: $18,600 tuition for full-time students who are state residents; $31,500 for those who hail from outside Kansas.
Motivations Matter; Outcomes Matter More
Everyone expects that the decline in the number of law school applicants will produce lower average LSATs and GPAs for entering 1Ls. That, in turn, would hit the selectivity component of a school’s overall U.S. News ranking. It’s possible that some deans have reduced entering class size as part of a strategy to protect their rankings. But if the overall net outcome is that law schools as a group produce fewer lawyers three years from now, then the rankings may have helped to mitigate damage that they have caused since their first appearance in 1987.
Ay, there’s the rub. Will there be fewer total law graduates, or will other schools (and new ones in the pipeline) enroll the students that KU and others don’t accept? Indeed, will some schools expand enrollments solely to increase their tuition revenues? Asking those institutions to consider the long-term well-being of the marginal students they recruit, or the sad state of the profession itself, would be asking too much, I guess.
One way to counteract the agendas of deans who refuse to do the right thing is to recognize those who do. Even more important is the task of helping prospective law students make informed decisions before they apply to law school. Over time, perhaps more of them will take advantage of increased transparency to assess realistically their own suitability for a satisfying and successful legal career. But at any age, encounters with confirmation bias are never easy.
Meanwhile, kudos to Dean Stephen Mazza and the University of Kansas School of Law. He’s been dean only since April 2011, but he’s already making a profound difference in the way that matters most—one person at a time. (And thanks to one of my regular readers who brought Dean Mazza’s announcement to my attention.)
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.