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February 26, 2014

Wisdom of the law school crowds

by Dan Rodriguez

Engaged closely these days with strategic planning and developing innovations that will enhance the quality of a Northwestern legal education while also tackling the high costs and high debt of our students and graduates, we naturally turn our attention to how other schools are facing these challenges.

The wisdom of the law school crowds as a fertile source of guidance.

For at least the quarter century in which U.S. News rankings have perniciously influenced our functioning, the temptation and tendency of law schools was to follow the leader.  Innovation was the exception, not the rule; law schools moved ahead with structural reforms incrementally, if at all.  And, to one’s great surprise, reforms generally pushed toward business and educational models that looked very much like law schools ranked at or very near the top.

Everyone knows the next chapter:  Law schools have found keeping up with the Harvards and Yales too expensive and insufficient attuned to the dynamics and needs of their professional contexts and student requirements.

A positive by-product of the present economic predicaments facing many American law schools, especially those at the top of the pecking order, has been fast-moving innovation and a refocus on the mission of the institution.  With respect to employment in particular, many law schools have newly embraced their identity as regional law schools — as schools embedded in discrete regions of the U.S. and in service of the students who will likely seek careers in these regions.  The regionalization of (most) U.S. law schools is a welcome development, if regrettable that it has taken severe economic pressures to push ahead these efforts.

And what of the national law schools?  Innovation here too has been slow in coming.  But even in the comparatively enviable position that our dozen or so national law schools find themselves, competition for students, faculty, and reputation is intense.  National law schools have two overarching goals:  To use constructively their leadership positions to articulate for and implement concretely important changes for the benefit of the legal profession.  Biglaw hires from these cadre of law schools; so these law schools are in a particularly good position to have an impact on the structure and functioning of Biglaw.  Major public interest organizations, too, look to these law schools for entry-level lawyers; thus, these law schools can work, if they put their individual and collective minds to it, to foster change, provide expanded opportunity for meaningful public interest work, and address in tangible ways the justice gap.

Let me say this as well:  There is wisdom in looking across the regional/national divide for good ideas and strategies where found in our diverse cohort of law schools.  Law schools under powerful stress and strain have little to lose from bold innovation; law schools under comparatively less strain can learn much about how these bold innovations are impacting professional conditions and their well-being of graduates schooled in these new ways.  Conversely, the imaginative work of faculties and administrators in so-called national law schools can translate, even in the face of diversity of resource circumstances, to the work being done in more regional law schools.

These is wisdom in the crowd of law schools, never more than today.  Progress entails doing some more looking around.

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