Editor’s Note: This article summarizes Kevin R. Johnson, Some Thoughts on the Future of Legal Education: Why Diversity and Student Wellness Should Matter in a Time of Economic “Crisis,” 65 Buffalo Law Review 255 (2017).
by Kevin R. Johnson
Legal education has been besieged by critics proclaiming that the challenges of law school economics have reached “crisis” proportions. They point to recent developments in the market for law schools. Law schools have experienced a precipitous drop in applications. The global recession decimated the legal job market (although it is slowly recovering). To make matters worse, rising tuition has resulted in increasing debt loads for law graduates.
The lack of racial and other diversity of students attending law school, and ultimately entering the legal profession, and faculty, has long been a problem.
In light of the changes in the legal marketplace, stabilization of the budgetary picture is currently the first priority of virtually every American law school. Faculty members have been let go. Staffs reduced. Enrollment of students — and the collection of tuition revenues — have critical budgetary consequences.
Linked to the economic “crisis” facing law schools and students has been deep concern with each school’s relative placement in the much-watched U.S. News and World Report law school rankings. These rankings, among other things, affect admissions and enrollment, and thus budgetary bottom lines for law schools.
Much less publicized concerns with legal education involve non-financial issues. The lack of racial and other diversity of students attending law school, and ultimately entering the legal profession, and faculty, has long been a problem. Employers and clients clamor for more attorneys from diverse backgrounds. In addition, today’s students demand a more humane legal education and are asking for additional academic support, career and mental health counseling, experiential learning opportunities, and more.
The current tumult in legal education coincides with changes in the practice of law. Law practice has changed as a result of technology, globalization, and economic pressures. The market for law graduates has diminished. Law schools cannot remain the same in this environment. Except for a very small number of the most elite schools, those that do not adjust are at serious risk of failing.
Law schools, of course, should strive to address the noneconomic as well as the economic problems with modern legal education. As they must, law schools have responded to the rapidly changing legal market. Changes in the legal marketplace no doubt will continue to fuel considerable discussion and reforms.
In contemplating reform proposals, part of the challenge stems from the fact that the myriad of proposals focus on very different aspects of the so-called “crisis” in legal education. Some critics denounce the role of law schools in causing the “crisis” with rising fees and resistance to change. Others claim that law schools should change the curriculum and focus more on lawyering skills. Still other knowledgeable observers contend that the criticisms are exaggerated.
Two less-publicized concerns with legal education deserve consideration in this time of perceived crisis. One involves the lack of racial diversity of the student bodies of many, if not most, law schools (and ultimately new attorneys) and law faculties. The longstanding lack of diversity among law students and faculty threatens to ensure that the literal face of the legal profession remains static for generations.
Besides addressing the economics of legal education, UC Davis School of Law has sought to address the issue of diversity. Although work remains to be done, a majority of our entering class is frequently comprised of students of color. UC Davis also is fortunate to have built a majority-minority law faculty, about half of whom are women.
Another concern revolves around students’ longstanding complaints about legal education and their demand for a more humane and student-friendly learning environment. Students today seek additional academic support, career counseling, and mental health programs, all of which were virtually non-existent at most law schools just a few years ago. Such services may assist students in adjusting in a healthy fashion to the stresses of legal education as well as to more effectively compete for employment in the highly competitive contemporary legal job market.
UC Davis School of Law has attempted to respond to climate and student wellness concerns with, among other changes, a “Student Wellness Initiative,” which includes programming to educate students about healthy ways of coping with stress, as well as education about substance abuse (a well-known problem in the legal profession), and issues of professionalism generally. We have added an on-site trained counselor to assist law students in the adjustment to the rigors of law school life, cope with the stresses and strains of a legal education, and generally address student mental health concerns. Other schools are taking similar steps.
In sum, student concerns with the non-economic aspects of legal education generally have not factored to any substantial degree into the commentary on the widespread concern with the “crisis” in law schools. As law schools change, my hope is that we do not lose sight of the need to address diversity and student wellness concerns.