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Justice might be blind, but for those teaching the law it has never been more important to keep a watchful eye on students’ expectations.
Since the financial crisis of 2007-08, demand for law school places has been erratic.
Following the crisis, numbers taking the benchmark Law School Admission Test (LSAT) tumbled from 151,398 in 2009-10 to 101,689 in 2014-15.
In the US, students are returning but enrolment remains weak in many schools, in part because many believe law school may no longer be a safe bet as fewer legal jobs are available. Schools must also react to longer term changes in the nature of work, in which career paths are more flexible than before.
Law school graduates may begin careers by working in start-ups rather than established law firms, or in organisations going through strategic changes rather than the conservative firms of old. They may work in several countries where their employer has a presence.
Students are increasingly willing to study overseas. The student population of Madrid’s IE Law School, for example, is drawn from more than 100 countries. On some of its courses, there are no local students at all.
Students also have expectations about how to study that are different from previous generations, according to Moray McLaren, who runs the lawyers’ management programme at IE.
“We can assume that young lawyers who grew up texting friends with one hand, writing a thesis with the other, while playing online computer games with friends will not be running to the law-firm library,” he says.
Common law is more popular than civil law, Mr McLaren notes. In response, IE allows students to co-qualify in both civil and common law jurisdictions, jointly with Northwestern College in the US and the University of Law in the UK.
Law firms are also evolving, even emulating the culture, look and feel of technology multinationals such as Google, according to Mr McLaren.
“We are in uncharted territory,” he says. “The traditional law firm is both outmoded in some parts of the world and being seriously stress-tested in others. Allen & Overy, for instance, now describes itself as a ‘hybrid firm’.
“The challenge with legal education is, therefore, what should we be teaching the future leaders of legal services while we figure out what the future will be? Everything is up for grabs,” adds Mr McLaren.
Falling demand for a formal legal education remains a problem.
Although several US schools reported an uptick in interest from potential candidates this year, the US Law School Admission Council recorded 6.7 per cent fewer applications in 2015 than in 2014, across the country.
If the pace of decline continues as it did last year, the number of people who applied to law school for the autumn 2016 semester will hit its lowest level in 15 years.
Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law has recorded a small increase in applicants over the past four admissions test cycles (they hold four a year), although this has not made up for the significant drop in previous years.
This partly reflects a natural cycle in admissions, which follows the economic cycle, according to Austen Parrish, the school’s dean, who is optimistic about a recovery in interest.
But he warns that the cost of higher education has become a barrier to many. “I would love to go back to the situation 35 years ago when public education in the US was fully funded, but that is not going to happen,” he says.
Ninety per cent of Maurer’s students are on some form of scholarship, on average receiving $25,000, thanks to donations from the school’s alumni. Nevertheless, students often graduate with debts in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Part of the requirement for schools is to convince potential students of the value of such an expensive commitment, Mr Parrish says. “It is pretty clear that getting a good education from a top university in the US opens a lot of doors,” he explains.
The likes of Maurer remain in a better position than lower-ranked US schools, several of which have lowered their admissions standards in the past 12 months. Accepted scores in the benchmark LSAT at many schools have dropped.
The State University of New York-Buffalo Law School and the University of Iowa College of Law, for example, announced this year that they would not require the LSAT for applicants from among top-performing students at their undergraduate institutions.
Some have turned to financial inducements, such as New York’s Pace Law School, which this year set its tuition charges at the same rate that out-of-state students would pay at their local state schools.
As one of the world’s most prestigious research and teaching institutions, Harvard Law School has had fewer concerns about dwindling numbers of applications.
However, Scott Westfahl, its professor of practice and executive education faculty director, notes there is pressure on all law schools to show tuition costs are worth the money.
There is a push to impose new work placements for law school accreditation, Mr Westfahl says.
“The reasoning is that for what law schools charge, they should be more outcome-focused and graduate more ‘practice-ready’ graduates,” he explains. Curricular changes are happening, but only slowly, according to Mr Westfahl.
“Increased pressure on tuition won’t result in rapid change, because there are so many fixed costs, such as tenured faculty, buildings and libraries, and the deep, cultural expectations about what a law school is supposed to teach.”
In the UK, the more pressing challenge is helping students find a job after graduation. “Things are getting worse for law graduates seeking a career in law,” says Fatos Selita, president of the UK Law Students’ Association.
“Law firms are expecting trainees to work longer hours and often make graduates work as paralegals for long periods before taking them on as trainees, if the latter happens,” he says.
Employers want to discover which skills are required to develop a profitable practice in the current market.
As a result, students are demanding a shift from the more traditional negotiating, advisory or drafting skills to understanding financial metrics or how to ascertain a client’s needs.
“We just have to read the recruitment adverts to see how rapidly those requirements are changing,” Mr McLaren at IE says.
“This year, we have seen a higher demand for legal project managers, plus, of course, the ongoing struggle to find technologists within legal services.
“IE already has an optional course on legal project management for students, with some more exotic classes coming next year,” he says.
There are opportunities for law schools that can keep abreast of market trends and student demand.
The challenge is for an industry with a reputation for conservatism and gradual development to move fast enough to keep up with the changing ambitions of the new generation of students.
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