Law school law books stock photo

When I looked in on law schools right before the holidays, I took the glass-half-full approach concerning the six in North Carolina: Applications were down, first-year classes were smaller than the year before but overall enrollment is up. The post-recession years haven't been all that kind to N.C. law schools — one of them (Charlotte) even closed — but things seems to have stabilized.

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Ed published an interesting piece called "The Law School Crash" (subscription probably required). Benjamin Barton, a University of Tennessee law professor, takes a mostly the-glass-is-half-empty-and-cracked look at law schools over the past decade. At a lot of law schools, he writes, applications, enrollment and revenues are down. Budgets have been cut and prices have been raised. Law schools employ fewer professors and staff members, and students are graduating with even more debt. It's a sobering picture.

About halfway through, Barton poses a question: Why aren't more law schools trying different things to stand out from the herd? He offers up as a brief case study Washington and Lee School of Law in my native Virginia, about two and a half hours north of Greensboro. About a decade ago, W&L replaced its traditional final-year curriculum with externships, practicums, clinics and other offerings designed to give its law students some practical experience in the legal field. 

W&L's change seemed well-received until, apparently because of some unrelated factors, the law school's U.S. News ranking started to fall. The rankings slide led to cascading problems with enrollment and budgets, and W&L has since modified its curriculum. Barton called the school's retreat "astounding and a little sad" and predicted that other law schools would be loathe to buck the status quo.

If you know your N.C. law schools, you'll probably remember that one of them recently went all in on what it calls "a groundbreaking new model for legal education" — a 2.5-year program (instead of the standard three) with a big emphasis on practical experience. The fall 2015 class was the first admitted under this revamped approach. I wrote about the changes here.

So when I saw the Chronicle piece, I wondered what sort of take the folks at Elon University School of Law might have. 

I didn't have to wonder long. Luke Bierman, dean and professor at Elon Law, quickly sent the Chronicle a stern letter. Under the headline "Not All Law Schools Are Failing to Adapt," Bierman called Barton's piece a "chronicle of missed opportunities (that) overlooks those in legal education who do, in fact, recognize the modern creed to adapt or die" and ticked off some of Elon Law's recent improvements: more applications, higher enrollment, stable budget, more student diversity, less student debt and better bar exam scores.

Bierman continued: 

Every law school has its own set of values, traditions, resources, and personalities that shape opportunities for change. Barton and others who monitor legal education should know that Elon Law proves there are law professors and administrators with the courage to adapt for the long haul.

You can read Bierman's entire letter here.

Have something to say about this blog post? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

Support my coverage of higher education. Click here to learn about digital subscriptions to www.greensboro.com.

Load comments