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Law school applicants and LSAT takers are both down by double-digit percentages every fall.  Law students are taking on higher and higher levels of debt and are met with a job market that is the worst in decades.  Commentators at Above the Law, Inside the Law School Scam, and the New York Times lay out the numbers and ask why anyone would ever attend law school, unless they're essentially going for free.

Law schools and the law professors who help govern them need to confront these issues.  However, in conversations with students and professors at other schools, I've heard about the difficulty in bringing up these concerns with fellow faculty members.  In the face of the sometimes vituperative attacks on legal education, many professors have closed ranks, and a prof who brings up these issues may seem to be casting her lot with the critics.  On the other hand, speaking up in defense of legal education draws cries that one is a Pollyanna or a con artist.  As a law student, I believe that there is a lot of good in legal education, but it's tough to say that to someone who is 26, unemployed, and carrying 20-30 lakhs in debt.

Law profs need to talk about these issues in an honest but productive way.  Those of us who work in the field do not have the luxury of waiting to see what others do; we are responsible for change.  And many changes will likely be unpleasant ones.  But at the same time, there is a real opportunity here to reform an industry that has remained largely static for over 100 years.  Taking the bull by the horns will give us a better chance to not get trampled.

So instead of continuing to debate whether law schools are failing, we need to recognize the problems and deal with them constructively.  It's time to focus on the future.  And if we want law schools to continue to be vibrant players in higher education, the legal profession, and society, we need to focus on sustainability.

"Sustainability" is generally used in the environmental context to indicate the ongoing health of a particular practice or system.  But it can also refer more generally to the continued existence and flourishing of industries, firms, and institutions.  Law schools have to focus on sustainability.  That means asking what schools need to do now to ensure their long-term health and prosperity.  Below I sketch out a few thoughts about law school sustainability:

Make law school more affordable.  the short-term incentives for all law schools point in the direction of shrinking class sizes.  But tuition and debt levels remain a long-term problem.  To make law schools sustainable over time, we need to focus on making the opportunity to get a legal education something that doesn't saddle the student with overwhelming debt.  This is not a problem that will be solved overnight.  But it needs to be addressed, both now and continuing into the future.

Cut costs.  If classes shrink and tuition drops, by necessity school budgets will shrink.  But how they shrink is another matter.  Those who govern schools need to think hard about the ways in which the budget will be cut.  And if these conversations are focused on making the school more sustainable over time, professors will be more invested in the process, even if they personally feel the brunt.  A salary cut is a positive step for the health of the organization if it is explicitly tied to a tuition cut.  If the money saved just goes into a general university fund, profs may feel that their personal sacrifice has not contributed to a more sustainable institution.

Protect core values.  There are a lot of different ways to reform legal education.  Some of those can come from the inside, such as revised curricula, more experiential learning, and smaller class sizes.  But some reforms would be imposed from the outside: revised ABA or state requirements, changes to federal loan programs, and huge market shifts in demand.  Law schools need to think hard about what their core values are, and make sure to protect those core values.  Along with providing excellent education and preparing our students for success on the job market, I think legal scholarship must also remain a core value to be protected.  Now, there are lots of ways to do this; protecting legal scholarship does not mean continuing with the status quo.  But I do think that a focus on sustainability includes a focus on keeping legal scholarship alive and well even when legal education is going through dramatic change.

I am itself a victim of such high costs prevalent in the law schools and thus wants to make such schools affordable for the general public. I welcome your thoughts of various law school students and particularly those of junior or prospective law profs.  What should be the focus on when we think about the long-term future of law schools?

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