For a decade, law schools have been jacking up tuition, class sizes, professors’ salaries, and employment numbers, despite the fact that the legal market has been in a slide, if not a freefall, for much of that time. Everyone knew it was unsustainable, but law schools were either oblivious or uncaring.
Finally, the bubble has burst. The pool of applicants to law school is shrinking drastically, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The University of St. Thomas School of Law, for example, received “59 percent fewer applications this year than in 2010.”
Law school is no longer the default decision it used to be for smart college graduates who aren’t sure where to go next, said James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement.
That means keeping up those big class sizes will likely lead to a loss in the rankings. But law schools may not have much choice. The ABA actually requires law schools to grant tenure to “certain full-time faculty” as a condition of accreditation. Law schools want the flexibility to shrink, but tenured professors’ salaries make that difficult. Dean Kent Syverud of the Washington University Law School said that “The whole problem of costs probably would go away if our salaries were halved.”
So it should be no surprise that, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), the ABA “is moving to reduce job protections for law professors, who have long enjoyed the security of academic tenure.” In fact, law schools aren’t waiting around for the ABA. Confronted with plunging applicant pools, they are offering buyouts and leaving empty positions unfilled.
The ABA will put two options up for public comment, and plans to adopt one or the other, probably in 2014. One option would require law schools to offer a “more-limited form of job security” to full-time faculty. The other opens the door to the elimination of tenure entirely, requiring only that law schools protect academic freedom and job security as they see fit.