Over at Leiter's Law School Reports, Brian Leiter has written up a detailed analysis of NU Law's new 2-year JD program. The post includes a link to my earlier lengthy post on the same topic, which Brian characterizes (fairly) as a "generous appraisal." More significantly, Brian's post provides an opportunity to examine a large schism that, I argue, is going to fundamentally alter the legal education landscape--including, eventually, the playing field for elite schools.
Brian's emphasis on crosstown rivalries of Columbia/NYU and Chicago/NW Law provides a good way to illustrate my point. As Brian notes, the rivalry between Columbia and crosstown upstart NYU played itself out in the form of head-to-head competition for faculty and students. The two schools are now, arguably, in equipoise. Dean John Sexton (now NYU President) got a lot of credit for the "NYU miracle", but it took more than good management--he got an infusion of new endowment money. In contrast, the crosstown dynamic between Chicago and NU Law is taking a different form, largely because of NU Law's aggressive orientation toward work experience, business training and placement. Brian suggests that this non-academic (arguably non-law) focus may alienate the types of faculty and students that comprise a truly elite academic enterprise.
The core issue here boils down to perceptions of eliteness and prestige. Imagine two types of eliteness:
- Perceptions among legal academics, which are documented by Brian's careful systematic surveys and corroborated by the direction of law professors lateral movement;
- Perceptions among other labor market participants--i.e., prospective students and employers.
When #1 and #2 are coextensive, we get the impression that there is single "elite" construct that drives the market. But what happens when there is a divergence between academic versus student-employer perceptions? I would argue that we academics are too insecure to stick to our traditional measures of eliteness when students, employers, and alumni are dancing to a different tune. Law professors love an audience. Further, these folks write the checks. In other words, there is an interactive effect. Faculty that fare well under this system will craft their own narrative of eliteness; and over time it could become the dominant one.
Here, it is important to understand the institutional coherence of NU Law's market differentiation approach. NU Law wants to be, among other things, the #1 law school for elite legal employers -- and, in contrast to 20 years ago, these are all immensely complex businesses operating on a global scale. Dean Van Zandt is constantly soliciting the input of managing partners. NU Law holds focus groups (this article lays it all out) with people whose time is worth $1,000 a hour. I would wager that these high-powered people attend because it is so rare that a law school actually asks them for advice rather than money--as professionals, they are flattered. They also enjoy networking with other high-powered folks.
Clearly, the consensus strategy that emerged from this process was sorting plus training--"build it and we will come." Yet, regardless of whether NU Law actually delivers on a better prepared lawyer--something we cannot pretend to measure--all this hands-on courting of legal employers is likely to set expectations that NU Law students (2-year, and maybe 3-year) are, in fact, more mature and better prepared. And the market, let's not forget, is just the aggregation of expectations and perceptions. Further, as this employer network grows, in five to ten years the "ask" become utterly organic. These monies can finance NU Law's other institutional commitments, such as "multidisciplinary" scholarship, which is (I am told) different than interdisciplinary.
To illustrate my point, consider this thought experiment: The Financial Times debuts a new ranking of law schools based on a survey of law firm hiring partners and hiring chairs. Further, it is backed up by a quantification of actual hiring patterns. NW Law ends up #1, by a lot. When a student is going $150K into debt, they want to maximize options. And the FT rankings is providing a much clearer signal than USNWR. The following year, law school admissions applicants begin tracking FT rankings. Eventually, law school alumni want upward movement. What is the dean going to do--argue that USNWR is a better measure of quality?
Dean Van Zandt is trying to harness labor markets--students and employers--to work in his favor. And the winds are blowing in his direction: 1) only elite jobs are keeping pace with higher tuition; 2) legal employers are actually looking for better trained (or sorted) workers, particularly in an era of high associate attrition--this has been a recurrent theme in my own conversations with hiring partners. When LSAT scores are essentially co-linear with scholarly reputation and output, which they are now, we academics need to be realistic about the source of our relative market power. High LSAT scores + sorting + business training are, from a employer's perspective, better than high LSAT scores alone. If employer preferences are clearly signaled in the marketplace, they will shape student preferences. NU Law wants to stoke that signal. In the long run, this could easily marginalize the influence of USNWR.
Finally, NU Law understands that its sorting strategy only works in a
differentiated marketplace. If all schools adopt the same 2-year
program, then the sorting function gets diluted and employers will not
privilege NU Law. But I suspect that NU Law doubts that will happen;
instead, it is banking that the legal academy will collectively turn up
its nose at this approach. The more we criticize, the more we show how
out of touch we are with market forces. I have to believe this is all part of NU Law's strategy.
NU Law is trying to remake the elite law school market--the market is, after all, segmented. But further down the law school hierarchy, there is evidence that that the market is about to break in a new direction. Students at lower ranked students are increasingly daunted by ever higher debt loads and an unforgiving bi-modal distribution of entry level jobs. If the interest rates go up, many law schools will have a hard time filling their 1L classes with qualified students. Building alliances with legal employers helps solve this problem; thus, it is likely the wave of the future. This is, to my mind, a descriptive rather than normative assertion.