One thing is clear: Culverhouse was insisting on Alabama significantly increasing the law school’s entering class size — and then demanded $10 million of his gift back when the law school demurred (with all of this taking place well before his highly public call for an abortion-related boycott of all things Alabama, notably including the University of Alabama School of Law). Thus, when it comes to law schools, Culverhouse embraces the idea that bigger is better. However, this simply isn’t true. What’s more, this view reflects a deep misunderstanding of the current market for legal employment.
An ethical law school has a duty to consider whether its graduates will enjoy reasonable access to good professional opportunities after they graduate — and class size has a direct, and inverse, relationship to employment outcomes for graduates.
Since the Great Recession, a wrenching retrenchment in demand for legal services has occurred. Tasks that were once performed by junior associates at big-city law firms are now both automated and offshored. Not long ago, document review in major corporate litigation constituted a bread-and-butter staple of litigation practices. Now, computers scan and sort documents for attorney-client and work-product privilege with astonishing speed and accuracy. The remaining documents are more often than not then reviewed by U.S.-trained lawyers working abroad (who are less expensive than domestic lawyers). In addition, corporations have taken more work inside their corporate counsel offices and have slashed their budgets for outside work.
This reduced demand for legal services has led to a steep decline in demand for lawyers. Law school enrollment is down by about 20 percent since 2008 — and applications have declined by about 30 percent. Would-be law students are taking a hard look at the cost-benefit equation of law school and deciding “thanks, but no thanks.”
U.S. law schools have been playing a game of catch-up with these disruptive changes in the profession. One common response, at least by law schools affiliated with major universities, has been to reduce the entering class size. Taking this step permits law schools to hold the line on the quality of the entering class despite fewer applications for admission — and makes it easier for law schools to maximize students’ prospects for good post-graduation employment.
Simply put, in the current market, it’s much easier to find good jobs for 125 law school graduates than to place 250 graduates. Many universities, including but not limited to Alabama, have forgone tuition revenue and used central university funds to permit reductions in class size, to right-size law school enrollments. It would be easy, and remunerative, to admit bigger classes — with less capable students who are less likely to find law-related employment after graduation. Law schools, however, have generally tried to do the right thing.
Rather than pushing for law schools to enroll more students, it would be better if would-be donors facilitated public-interest career paths by making it possible for current law students to graduate with lower debt loads. Taking this step would permit more newly minted lawyers to take positions that involve providing legal services to chronically underserved communities desperately in need of them.
Alabama actually does a pretty good job on this front — on average, our graduates finish law school with less than $82,000 in law school-related debt, and 38 percent graduate with no debt. This gives them the ability to take lower-paying jobs as prosecutors and public defenders, and with state and federal agencies. In sum, a smaller graduating class, with lower debt loads, is a good thing for both recently graduated lawyers and also for those who need access to lawyers but cannot afford to pay for it.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that reductions in law school class sizes have nothing to do with the annual law school rankings. But it would be equally disingenuous to suggest that cuts to law school class sizes are only about gaming the rankings. There are important benefits to the students that relate directly to right-sizing a law school’s entering class size. Law schools should be given credit, not blame, for considering seriously whether our graduates will enjoy robust professional opportunities after they graduate. Moreover, regardless of whether right-sizing entering law school classes represents the best policy or not, surely the law school, and not a donor, should be entitled to make this important judgment call.