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March 25, 2014

A most unfortunate narrative

by Dan Rodriguez

Many law schools are working hard to keep up enrollments and student credentials; some are indeed struggling.  As deans and university leaders work hard to make adjustments on the expenses side in order to deal constructively with these difficult issues, there has emerged an almost daily narrative about how the sky is falling (which is isn’t).

The most recent iteration of this is the news emerging from a handful of schools that faculty members are being offered retirement incentives.  Although I am in no vantage point to assess the wisdom of any of these strategies for any of these law schools, it strikes me as a sensible reaction to enrollment circumstances that are, for the most part, currently out of control for some law schools.  The business of retirement incentives is not, of course, a new phenomenon.  With the end of mandatory retirement, university departments can manage human resource costs only by looking at creative tactics such as retirement incentives.  Sometimes this will involve more senior (and typically highly compensated) members of the community; other times, given the long careers ahead of young faculty members, this will involve incentives nearer the front end.  These incentives create a dynamic of negotiation not distinct from any other sort of employer-worker negotiation.  They are tried-and-true carrots, not sticks.

That law schools are looking to manage their costs by taking close looks at their faculty labor force seems entirely sensible.  It is hardly the harbinger of disaster; and, like the press releases that are attached to these proposals, these are important messages to the wider community of students and alumni that the law schools are looking at constructive ways of preserving strong academic programs and high quality in their student bodies.

These should be welcome developments.  Folks like our friends at Above the Law, who are habitually cranky about law school decisionmaking and the motivations of academic leaders, should say:  “Hurray.  It’s about time law schools take a hard look at costs.”  But, instead, the headline of the day is essentially “Law Schools are Crashing Around Us.  Witness the Scramble to ‘Kick Out’ Faculty Members.”  Think I am exaggerating?  Here’s a link to a post by the sober Pepperdine Law professor and influential blogger, Paul Caron.

Take a breath, doomsayers.  Have some perspective.  This is evidence of adaptation, not desperation.  And you are not helping the general situation, IMHO!

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