Is a Law School Meltdown Coming?

Surveys indicate a coming semi-permanent dip in admissions

By guest author Richard Vedder
June 11, 2020

Watching TV ads for plaintiff trial lawyers wanting to cash in on other people’s misery doesn’t exactly endear me to the legal profession, but it does increase my already serious infatuation for The Bard himself, William Shakespeare, who once said (Henry VII, Part 2) “let’s kill all the lawyers.” That said, we are a nation ruled by law, and a massive breakdown of that bedrock principle, threatened in recent days, scares most Americans. We need lawyers, and lots of them, to enforce the rules and laws that allow for a prosperous, orderly society.

Enter Covid-19 and the possibility that law schools will forgo in-class legal education this fall. Already Harvard Law has said its fall courses are going to be taught remotely. How does this impact law students facing tuition and other fees often in the $50,000 range or even more? The apparent answer, based on a survey of 1,651 law students: “considerably.”

Asked if they would “reconsider continuing your legal education” in an era of social distancing and remote learning, more than 30% of students answered yes, and nearly 40% more said, “no, but I may take a hiatus until things return to normal.” More than 20% said they are reconsidering their career path. Some 87% said they thought their education would be overpriced if they had to continue it remotely. And most were concerned about rules in nearly all states restricting the ability of lawyers educated online to take the bar exam. The American Bar Association, which is the cartel that largely controls entry into the legal profession, seemingly hates online learning. Additionally, a large majority of current students found their own vocationally important summer internships interrupted.

Most damning, some 56% of those polled said their education last semester was “less effective” because of remote learning, while only 37% said there was “no change” going from in-person to remote learning. Most students feel they lose something in not facing in person the intense intellectual interchange between students and professors that characterizes legal education, and helps prepare students for something most other college graduates do NOT face (but perhaps should): a very high stakes examination that literally will determine whether they can practice the trade in which they were trained.

Mehran Ebadolahi is a UCLA/Harvard Law graduate who runs TestMax, a company that helps prepare students for the LSAT, bar examination, and some other key tests. Most relevant, he is responsible for the survey results reported above. While the TestMax database may not be a perfectly random sample of law school participants, it is pretty large. Mehran, whom I interviewed, is the personification of the American Dream. Born in Iran with one Jewish and one Muslim parent, he moved to the U.S. at the age of one, graduated with high grades from UCLA, did poorly (a 148 score) on the LSAT, but persevered until he got a 174 on that test and into Harvard. He has challenged the old, paper and pencil, in-person test preparation model, TestMax growing substantially with the passage of time. My hunch is his survey respondents probably fairly closely match that of law students generally.

I suspect most law schools are going to realize the implications of this survey and push hard to reopen next fall, particularly as mounting evidence exists that younger people seem to be far less likely to be lethally impacted by the novel coronavirus than older adults. The health arguments against live instruction may be seriously overstated. Law schools have enormous fixed costs and are mostly exceedingly tuition-dependent. Even with risks, the live show must go on for most of them or, in a few cases, they literally may die.

A comment from a friend and former student who is entering law school this fall, however, provides a small element of optimism: “I am actually salivating at the prospect that 30% of my peers would consider a career change… When I go to sell my labor on the job market after I finish school, fewer other prospects would play into my favor.” Maybe others will think the same thing, so actual enrollment declines come fall will actually be less than currently anticipated. As with the rest of higher education, this fall is critical.

This piece originally appeared in The Beacon.