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October 25, 2012


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"Other people who have tried to apply Christensen's analysis to legal education have wondered about the identity of the so-called "disruptive" innovators. (I have heard fellow law faculty say, in effect, that law schools don't need to worry about competition, because everyone who wants to go to law school has to go to law school. Yikes.) I don't think that it's so difficult to see what's happening: The marektplace disruption is happening downstream, in the world of law practice itself. Law schools have yet to fully appreciate its effects. But eventually, I think, they will."

I've been "on the ground" counseling applicants and law students and there is pressure coming from the applicants (the buyers) as well. What we're seeing and what the LSAT/applicant numbers evidence is that some people who want to go to law school are in fact not going to law school, and that the people who aren't going to law school are disproportionately those with above-average to high LSAT scores. These people are probably more likely to have other options that they perceive as more desirable than law school because they may be from higher regarded undergrads or have a better GPA.

This is contrary to historical trends that predict that an anemic job market for college students should increase law school enrollment. In the market for "law school" obviously, law schools are still dominant. But in the market for "something to do after undergrad or 1-2 years in the workforce" more people are now willing to turn down law school if they have other options.

Additionally, I am starting to see more savvy applicants. In order to effectively negotiate you have to be willing to walk away, and these applicants are very willing to walk away if they don't get what they perceive as a good deal. That is a very big change from four years ago when I applied and you were thankful to take the very first offer. This is probably not innovation in the sense you are talking about but it is certainly a dramatic shift in perception.

Mike Madison

I think that your observations are consistent with mine: the demand curve is shifting. Applicant perceptions of the value of law school are changing largely because the expense of the education is increasingly measured realistically against the income potential of a career in law. And that income potential is shifting, because of (arguably disruptive) changes in how clients and law firms organize the need for legal services. the competition for law schools today is not "students choosing cheaper law schools" (Christensen's parallel), but, as you note, "students not going to law schools." The open questions are how deeply, quickly, and broadly the demand effects will be felt, and when and where a new equilibrium will be established. On the former, I don't know. On the latter, I do not think that we are there yet.


Mike: "The open questions are how deeply, quickly, and broadly the demand effects will be felt, and when and where a new equilibrium will be established."

Mike, the wave is hitting right now. Even as the economy offers poor prospects, college grads are shunning law schools. What are enrollments down at the non-elites? 15%? 20%?

Law schools have been depending on ignorance and outdated social beliefs for at least several years, if not for over a decade. I think that the breaching of these escalates rapidly. Most people who look at law school without a strongly ingrained prior belief of its desirability and payout will come to the conclusion that it's not worth it. When the group just senior to you says that it's not worth it, then you'll be less likely to walk in blind.

Finally, any improvements in the economy will give more rewards to people who don't get into law school. Right now many law schools are like the French Foreign Legion going into a war zone - they can recruit easily among young male refugees.

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