Back

New data supports disruption in law schools

By:

Apr 26, 2016

New polling data from Gallup shows that law students are increasingly dissatisfied with their law school experience and disillusioned by the job opportunities awaiting them post-graduation. This supports Michele Pistone and Michael Horn’s recent white paper describing the disruption of the legal services market and the subsequent looming disruption facing legal education.

Key points from the Gallup survey:

  • Gallup’s recent polling of 7,000 law school graduates found that younger generations of lawyers are finding the job market much more challenging: less than half of those graduating over the past 15 years had what they considered “a good job” after graduation. For those graduating between 2010 and 2015, the rate was only 38 percent.
  • A full 17 percent of post 2010 graduates took over a year to find their first job.
  • In the view of law school graduations, the gap is growing between the preparation provided by law schools and the job market for lawyers. Among more recent graduates, 35 percent felt well-prepared for the job market, relative to 48 percent of older lawyers.
  • Most concerning for law schools is a growing degree of buyer’s remorse among law school graduates. Among those who graduated between 1960 and 1979, 68 percent strongly agreed that they if they had the choice to do it all over again, they would still get a law degree. That percentage fell to 54 percent among those who graduated between 1980 and 1999. For those who graduated in the 21st century, only 37 percent strongly agreed that they would repeat their legal training.

The darkening view of law school reflected by graduates is also shrinking the applicant pool and putting pressure on the business model at law schools. Pistone and Horn have four suggestions for law schools that fall in line with the takeaways from the Gallup data:

1. Focus on mastery
As law schools costs have risen and job prospects have collapsed, fewer and fewer graduates believe that law school is a good value. Of those graduating between 1960 and 1979, a full 75 percent said their degree was worth the cost. That number falls to 50 percent for those graduating between 1980 and 1999 and plummets to 20 percent for those graduating post-2000. How can law schools stop the slide? They ought to re-think dramatically their business models in ways that improve value for students and lower costs. Perhaps the most promising way to do both is by focusing on mastery, rather than seat time.

Why does law school have to take three years? President Obama, a distinguished law school graduate himself, has suggested it should be two. Moving to competency-based programs could speed the time to degree and would allow students to take control of their own learning. It would also integrate well with experiential elements of the curriculum, which would allow students to prove their skills to employers.

2. Move pedagogy online
One major objection to online learning is the fear that it will ruin a school’s sprit de corps and decrease student engagement. But the Gallup data suggests that this objection is sadly irrelevant for law schools. Only 11 percent of recent graduates report being emotionally attached to their law school. The number of recent graduates who felt supported by their law school is 17 percent—which sounds low, unless you consider that for those graduating prior to 1990, the number is only half that high.

Pistone and Horn suggest that law schools revolutionize how they think of the classroom and how they use technology. Rather than dry Socratic-method lectures, law schools could move lectures and content delivery online. Far from drying up engagement, this offers the opportunity to use classroom time in far more dynamic ways, where students apply knowledge through role-play, simulation, and small-group work. In addition to improving practical learning outcomes, this flipped classroom approach has the potential to create far more community than the lecture halls of today.

3. Embrace experiential learning
The Gallup data shows that the critical factor in whether students had a job waiting for them after graduation was whether they had real experience prior to graduation. Those who had a summer internship or a clerkship were nearly 50 percent more likely to have a job than those who did not. As the market for lawyers contracts, employers are placing emphasis on students who can demonstrate their learning outside of the classroom. Although 83 percent of survey participants reported having summer work experience, only 55 percent reported working during the semester. Given the huge benefits to graduates of real work experience, law schools should do more to incorporate experiential learning into the curriculum.

4. Get specific
If work experience helps, relevant work experience helps more. Only 43 percent of Gallup study participants who had a summer internship or clerkship reported that that experience allowed them to apply what they were learning in the classroom. Those who were able to do so demonstrated far better outcomes in terms of employment upon graduation, as well as engagement with their work later on in their careers. Pistone and Horn argue for creating programs to focus on specific areas of legal practice. This would likely help law schools differentiate their offerings; it would also help students connect theory learned in the classroom with practical applications through focused internships. The Gallup survey data shows this could go a long way toward improving outcomes for graduates.

The numbers don’t look great for law schools, but there is a path forward. The transformation of the legal services market continues inexorably, and it will require that law schools evolve as well. The data suggests that disruptive innovations—focusing on mastery, deploying technology, integrating experiential learning, and developing specific program offerings—could go a long way toward allowing institutions to remain relevant.

Alana Dunagan

Alana leads the Institute’s higher education research and works to find solutions for a more affordable system that better serves both students and employers. In this role, Alana analyzes disruptive forces changing the higher education landscape.

  • Matt

    This is a great article. Would you say that in terms of program structure, law schools could adopt a similar program to the Silver Scholar program at Yale? A 3 year MBA program with a year in the middle for hands on work experience.