The Legal Beat
Law Firms Should Not Own Law Schools
Posted on Wednesday June 21, 2017
Law schools need a serious overhaul. Attendance is dropping year after year, students with high GPAs are considering other options, and those who are attending are being more aggressive about seeking tuition discounts (at least they should be.)
What is going to make law school great again? Jay Conison, the former dean of Charlotte School of Law, thinks that law firms should own law schools.
He claims that law firm ownership would provide large-scale benefits. He does not give specific examples. Instead, he claims that ownership would somehow increase efficiency and collaboration between the law school and the firm. He also claims that it could achieve the recommendations of the Report of the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education by enabling the profession to “recapture its former substantial role in the education of new lawyers.” He then points to three specific recommendations: providing value to students, recognizing that law school exists to develop competencies, and changing faculty culture and work.
Let’s talk about value. Law school is a professional school. While almost all law students want to learn about the intricacies of the law, they also want to earn a living practicing law. So the “value” of a legal education is measured by cost of attendance and the job prospects after graduation. The so-called “intrinsic value” of a legal education can be obtained during bar review courses and work experience.
As for competencies, while a law firm setting might be a better place to teach practice skills, those skills might be applicable only to that particular firm. I would be concerned about whether those skills can be transferable to a peer firm, a smaller or larger firm, or an in-house or government position.
Finally, his call to change faculty work and culture sounds suspiciously like eliminating tenure and replacing it with most law firms’ cutthroat partnership promotion model. It will be amusing to see how many tenured professors would agree to this.
Conison then lays out the benefits of the law firm ownership model for the firm and the school:
Owning a law school can aid the work of the firm. One benefit could be the creation of a pipeline of new attorneys. These attorneys, in fact, may have been educated under an educational program that the firm helped develop in light of the firm’s approaches and needs. Another benefit could be a pipeline for firm diversity, something with which firms continue to struggle. Ownership of a school could also create a new source of revenue for the firm. And over time, as the school develops an alumni network, that network could be a source of firm clients.
Conison’s other proposed benefits are not likely to materialize. While law firms can shape its students in their own image, will that make the students marketable to other law firms? As for diversity, law firms care only to the extent it will help business. Also, most law schools today are losing money as they adjust to the new normal. And if there is an alumni network, are members going to refer clients to the mother firm, or to other alumni working elsewhere who might charge less?
Next, Conison discusses the benefits to the students:
Being owned by a firm could advance the career-related goals some schools now pursue in establishing their own firms or other legal services organizations. Thus, the firm-school structure could provide a path to entry-level (and other) jobs for graduates, as well as internships for current students. It could also provide students and alumni with access to firm clients, who might be another source of internships or jobs. The firm-school relationship could also provide a source of faculty, particularly ones who understand the school’s curriculum and culture, and who could step in as adjuncts or full-time faculty quickly. The relationship could also immediately provide a strong brand for the school. If the Smith & Jones firm is a well-known and respected firm, the Smith & Jones School of Law would instantly benefit from the firm’s brand halo.
In short, he thinks a firm-owned school can better assist its graduates in the job market. While all of the above sounds good in theory, I am skeptical because this will not solve the unemployment and underemployment problem caused by lawyer oversupply.
I sincerely would like Professor Conison’s idea to work. If a firm-owned school can successfully place most of its graduates into desirable jobs through its own connections, it won’t have to deal with headaches like managing its national rank, and maybe even some of the more burdensome ABA accreditation rules. Second- and third-year (if needed) students can opt to gain work experience at the firm instead of taking classes.
But I see two major problems. The fixed costs alone of running a law school will make it almost impossible for solo practitioners or small firms to do this. Also, most law firms – even the large ones – probably won’t have enough work to give to their students, and will not be able to absorb graduates into full-time positions at the firm.
The only way I see this model working is if the school is owned and operated by a reputable firm and it accepts only a small number of students to minimize overhead expenses and to ensure that their graduates are able to work for the firm or transition elsewhere. The students can take classes in the firm’s conference room and can work at their designated areas. Also, it would be more economical for law firms to create the school from the ground up rather than buying out an existing one, especially ones that have reputation issues and consistently low bar passage rates.
While the “Cravath School of Law” sounds interesting in theory, it will not work in practice. It does not solve the lawyer oversupply problem, and law firms are not likely to be receptive to this model. And no major law firm is going to be the white knight for an existing “opportunity and diversity” law school because it will be cheaper for them to start their own from scratch. While we all should explore new ideas for reforming legal education, this idea should stay academic.
Should Law Firms Own Law Schools? [Huffington Post]
Shannon Achimalbe was a former solo practitioner for five years before deciding to sell out and get back on the corporate ladder. Shannon can be reached by email at [email protected] and via Twitter: @ShanonAchimalbe.