10 Big Predictions for the Future of Law School

by Staff Writers

In its current state, legal education and the legal profession are not as close as you might think, in a system where law students engage in an overwhelmingly scholarly pursuit rather than professional education. This arrangement has worked for many years, but some experts say a change is coming, fueled by a declining economy, ultra-competitive job market, and the growing need for practice-ready legal graduates. We've found 10 interesting predictions for the future of law school, from no-frills law degrees to law schools with Enron-style accounting. Read on for an interesting look into what might represent the law school of the future.

  1. It will look more like medical school: We're likely to see an accelerated curriculum in law school, followed by more hands-on experience, much like medical school. Some schools, like Illinois‘ Northwestern University, have adopted this model, with a year of case method, a year of clinical, followed by a final year of externship in an area of focus. Experts believe this type of law school education would allow for a more practical legal education and a fast track to employment for law grads.
  2. There will be fewer law schools: The value of a law school education is dropping as salaries for graduates are not as high as they used to be and post-graduation jobs become harder to find. This is forcing the break-even point for graduates higher, where the resulting student loan debt becomes higher than the salary that follows. This may lead to fewer students enrolling in law schools, followed by fewer law schools altogether.
  3. No frills: It's entirely possible that the law school we see in the future will be a stripped-down version of the one we see today. Some experts have noted a trend in law schools that are less concerned with rankings and prestige than delivering a high level of value and quality for students. For schools like the North Carolina Central School of Law, that means low student debt loads, a focus on clinical skills, and high first-time bar passage rates, perks that are likely to sound like a great idea for students who have grown weary of mountainous student loans and limited post-graduate success.
  4. Schools will be cutting costs: Along the same line of no-frills law schools, we can also expect to see schools across the country cutting their costs. We can't expect that students will continue to flock to expensive schools for much longer if they're not getting a good return on their investment, so schools will have to find a way to keep tuition down. This means developments like bigger classes and an increased use of adjunct instructors.
  5. An increase in grant funding: Another way schools will likely try to keep tuition down is by increasingly applying for grant funding. Research projects will have to pursue grants, and school administrations are likely to ask administrators to fund portions of their salaries with grants. As a consequence, industry groups and grant-making legal organizations will have the opportunity to influence legal discourse with their grant decisions.

  1. Alumni donations will drop: Another squeeze on law school finances is less support from alumni. As law graduates struggle to find high-paying employment, there's simply less left over for their alma mater. As a result, schools will have to get creative with grants and cuts or raise tuition, putting pressure on already strapped law students.
  2. Graduates will be practice-ready: In order to keep students from foregoing a legal education in favor of something making them more immediately employable, law schools have to keep up by graduating students that are reading to enter the legal profession with high-paying jobs right away. This means a focus on practice-ready graduates that are "ready on day one." Some schools are even adopting a two-year practice-based alternative that is receiving national recognition. In one such school, the entire first graduating class was hired before their graduation date, allowing them to quickly deal with their law school debt.
  3. Schools may have to demonstrate employability: Rising tuition, difficulty in the job market, and an overall scrutiny of legal education means that when choosing their law school, many students will look at how likely it is that their degree will actually earn them a high paying job. Schools will not only have to demonstrate prestige and effective educational resources but also a track record of producing employable candidates. Some experts believe that this will be required not just by students but the Education Department, as schools may be required to demonstrate a certain level of employability and income upon graduation in order to receive federal loan money.
  4. Students will use e-books: Heavy, expensive legal tomes are well-known among law students. But new students may just get a break when it comes to lugging them around. With e-readers like the Kindle and Apple iPad, many law students are able to leave big books behind and read them digitally instead. Some worry about leaving behind the physical interaction that's important for learning, as well as the ability to make hand-written notes. But e-readers do allow for bookmarks and notations, as well as helpful search features. Ultimately, we may not see law schools completely ditch printed books, but it is extremely likely that students will be expected to buy casebooks, plus download an e-book supplement.
  5. Accounting will be a little tricky: According to statistics, law school graduates are doing quite well: 93% of grads are working, and the median starting salary for law graduates in the private sector is $160,000. But in reality, law grads are not finding a plethora of jobs, and when they do, they are often not reaching six-figure salaries. How can these statistics and this reality both be true? Law professors say it's "Enron-type accounting standards" that allow schools to game the rankings. In one statistic, which monitors how many of a school's law grads are employed after nine months, a job at Applebee's counts the same as a position as an attorney. As attracting legal students becomes a more competitive game, we can expect law schools to engage in more of these creative number crunches.