Thinking small in the future of legal education. Amidst the many concerns for the future of legal education is the discussion about whether we will begin to see law school closures due to the changing economics of the education cost/job availability ratio in the legal industry. For the moment, I will avoid wading into the there are too many lawyers because of too many law schools debate. In a previous post, I pointed out that from the perspective of a regional, non-urban law school, there appears to be a consistent demand for new LocalLaw (vs. BigLaw) practitioners. This certainly is the case along the Central Coast of California where Monterey College of Law exclusively serves a tri-county area that ranges from the wealthy enclave of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pebble Beach, to the migrant worker agricultural communities of south Monterey County.
In previous posts, I reflected on what I consider MCLs success through utilizing adjunct practitioner faculty, shifting academic focus towards clinical practice, and emphasizing education over selection. However, MCL is a very small law school, with a law school enrollment that has intentionally remained about 115 to 120 students over the past several years. It is perfectly reasonable to question whether our program model can be replicated in a larger law school.
But what if that is the wrong question? Perhaps the better question is not whether there should be law school closures, but whether there should be smaller law schools . . . re-designed to be boutique educational programs specifically tailored to meet the educational and practice needs of their community. Perhaps it is time for our regulatory and accreditation system to move away from a rigid, assembly-line curriculum that has the sole purpose of producing fungible law graduates?
The regional communities served by our law school need future DAs, public defenders, and a host of solos and "mom-and-pop" law firms to support small business owners, divorces, wills, immigration papers, criminal defense, etc. Their's is an honorable profession . . . serving the community. I suspect that from this standpoint that we are not really unique. There must be many more communities across the country that need lawyers from this type of law school . . . than there are communities that need programs expanding around the myth of BigLaw, prestigious federal clerkships, and an academy of elite legal theorists.
"Thinking small" would mean bringing the cost of legal education down to reflect the salaries of the local legal community. For example, MCL's current tuition and fees are less than $70,000 for a J.D. program that includes a comprehensive (non-credit) bar review program as part of the tuition. Our average student debt at graduation is lower than the average starting lawyer salaries in the community ($50,000).
I suggest that this might not be a bad metric to use in pricing legal education. What if student law school debt is not allowed to be greater than the average starting lawyer salaries in the market area served by the law school. A true market-based pricing system that could also support the transition to smaller, boutique educational programs that would be tailored to the specific educational and practice needs of the community. "Thinking small" in the future of legal education could bring about a big change.