Facing the Challenges in Legal Education: Three First Steps

March 11, 2013

To:       Northwestern Law Community

From:   Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez

Re:       The Road Ahead

Date:    Monday, March 11

During the past year, we have met in various venues and with a multitude of stakeholders to discuss the challenges facing legal education today, all of which are receiving due attention in the media and blogosphere.  Most notably, over the past few years a decline in hiring at firms and the outsourcing of certain types of legal jobs have led to fewer opportunities for law school graduates.  Further, too many students graduate with student loan debt that seriously affects both their career choices and their quality of life.  And fewer people are applying to law schools nationally (20% fewer this year and an estimated 38% decline since 2010).  Northwestern has not faced the same level of decline as other schools, nor have we suffered as greatly from the decline in legal positions as most other law schools.  We are not immune, however.  And we are not going to ignore the ways in which the legal economy affects our alumni, current students, and prospective students. 

This significant shift in the legal economy presents real challenges.  It also presents real opportunities.  Informed by our culture of innovation and with the creative work of our faculty, students, and staff we will craft strategies, big and small, to meet the challenges facing legal education so that we will continue to thrive in the years to come.  The strategic planning process, which is actively underway, will help shape curricular and external relations strategies to help propel us to the next level of achievement and reputation.  Meanwhile, we will carry out three important first steps with an eye toward addressing these challenges. These steps result from several months of deliberate analysis and are, quite properly, focused on protecting and enhancing our reputation and reducing financial burdens on our students.
First, we will implement a modest reduction in the size of our traditional JD program: approximately 10% or 20 to 25 fewer entering students in 2013.  As we become leaner, this modification also provides an opportunity for us to further enrich the strong and close-knit sense of community and camaraderie for which we are known.
Underlying this decision is the match—or, if you will, the mismatch—between the number of JDs who graduate each year and the actual demand the legal economy is creating and can sustain.  Earlier this year the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that the economy will generate approximately 75,000 new legal jobs in the next decade while ABA-approved law schools are graduating more than 40,000 students annually.  The specifics are debatable but the big picture is credible, and law schools must take heed and act in strategically responsible ways.
Second, we will continue to moderate our tuition increases.  JD program tuition for the 2013-2014 school year will once again rise by just 3%, matching last year’s increase which was our smallest in more than 40 years and a rate that coincides with historical measures of inflation.  Last year, this modest increase was at the very low end of the spectrum for top law schools.  We expect that this will be at the low end this year as well.
Third, we will increase our total investment in need- and merit-based financial aid for entering students and in our LRAP program for graduating students by at least 25% during the next two years.  This commitment, along with other measures we will explore, and our conservative approach to tuition increases going forward, are manifest efforts to limit the rising cost of a Northwestern legal education and corresponding burdens of student indebtedness.
Finally, we will look closely at managing more conservatively the expenses within the Law School, investigating ways we can repurpose dollars toward more efficient and efficacious methods of instruction.  No part of the Law School will be immune from this careful review.  For years, we have been asking students to make sacrifices by the tuition we charge and the debt undertaken; as faculty and staff of the Law School, we need to be prepared to make these sacrifices ourselves.  While we look at cost-saving measures, we will be guided by answers to this overriding question:  “Does this request for additional expenditures further directly the goals and objectives of our academic program?”  That all said, we are not going to shrink precipitously the size of the Law School budget so as to impair the quality of our academic program.  Indeed, due to the prudent and forward-thinking budgetary and contingency planning by our administrative team, we will be able to carry out these adjustments without the need to implement any major cuts to our operating budget.  In the long run, however, we will need to pursue ambitiously alternative sources of revenue and, in particular, we will need to secure significant external funding, at even higher levels than before, through the generous financial support of our alumni and friends. This, too, we will do.
These changes are no panacea and no doubt there will be further adjustments down the road.  Yet, present times call for these actions which, when implemented collectively, tangibly begin to address the convergent challenges facing all law schools.  At Northwestern Law School, we know that a first-class, innovative legal education need not be provided with insufficient regard to students’ economic circumstances.  We can be great and efficient, elite and compassionate.
Our Law School provides an exemplary legal education. Our graduates have been remarkably successful at lucrative and influential jobs around the globe.  Supported by our community and our culture of innovation, we are prepared to confront these issues, and we will emerge from this era well ahead of the curve.
Thank you for all you do for Northwestern Law School.