Several months ago, Bill Henderson predicted that there would be massive layoffs at law schools this fall. Like many others, I've been watching to see whether the predicted contraction has started to occur. As Brian Leiter has noted, we now have a few publicly discussed data points. As far as I'm aware, they include staff layoffs, conversion of full-time faculty to part-time status, faculty buyouts, pay cuts, and notices of possible future faculty cuts. These reports come from a total of about four law schools. This is newsworthy, but perhaps more for the relative paucity of such news.
What does it mean that we've heard so little about an employment earthquake in law schools? One conceivable theory is that there is no need for cuts. Maybe law schools aren't going see substantially reduced revenues next year - but that seems implausible. I see story after story suggesting that schools are reducing entering class size and cannot imagine that many of these schools are simultaenously decreasing their discount rate. Fewer students at the same effective tuition means less money. If this theory holds true, law schools are going to be admitting a large number of sure-fire bar failures. Another possibility is that many universities are covering this loss in revenue. I'm confident that's occuring in some cases, but university subvention of law school deficits is far from universal. For free-standing law schools and programs at less affluent universities, it's simply impossible. Or maybe schools are cutting other aspects of their budgets, slicing adjuncts and librarians, and cutting lines for research centers and faculty travel.
Perhaps the job cuts have not yet happened, and we'll be hearing much about about them in future months. Maybe they're "soft", driven by attrition or backed by generous buy-outs. Or maybe they're happening and they're not becoming public. Based on unconfirmed rumors and inferences, my sense is that there is more news than is being reported.
In the past few years, I've learned of a few school schools that, in the pre-blog era, quietly laid off faculty. As far as I can tell, these incidents never became widely known. I had assumed that, in a time of fast and easy information flow, such news would become widely available very quickly. But maybe this sort of news just doesn't travel. Faculty may not be eager to share their own, or their colleagues', bad news. And schools many not want to be known for laying off faculty.
On the other hand, it's worth watching for a different arc. Once several schools publicly cut positions, and particularly if this occurs at schools with strong reputations, the taboo may start to fade. It may become easier for a school to lay off faculty with little or no reputational consequence.
It will take some time to learn how much law school class sizes will be contracting this fall. It may take even longer to learn about how the corresponding drop in tuition revenue affects law schools and their faculties.