Though my column focuses on legal information, in the United States legal education is intimately bound up with the trends in legal information. LEXIS and WESTLAW maintain a stranglehold on the marketplace by heavy investment in law school training. By putting boots on the ground in the form of dedicated training representatives, student advisors and, of course, free access 24/7 to the relevant systems, the big commercial data bases win hearts and minds. New law students are highly energized and very impressionable. What they find upon arrival in law school is, as far as they see it, the way things have always been. But now legal education is on the brink of change, and with that change will come corresponding alterations in legal information.
The slowdown of the U.S. economy after 2008 produced a downward spiral in the market for new law school graduates. The resultant shake-out of law firms has allowed the firms to restructure themselves even as the economy crawls through its recovery. Fewer new hires are brought on board, fewer associates ever will become equity partners. Jobs in the public interest area are growing more and more competitive. Counter-intuitively while placement of recent graduates has grown more difficult, tuition at law schools has continued to rise. Debt loads for newly minted lawyers often reach into six figures. Very little thought is needed to explain the serious drop in law school applications this year. Everyone laments the situation, but now someone is doing something about it.
In the past four months the New York Times has carried a series of stories about the coming restructuring of legal education. Two op-ed pieces have graced its editorial pages, one tellingly authored by Dean Dan Rodriguez from Northwestern Law School, a top tier school. The American Bar Association has appointed a Task Force whose charge is to reshape the accreditation requirements for law schools, in fact to reconsider the entire structure of legal education in the U.S.. The Task Force has been made a high priority. It amuses me that other than Dean Rodriguez there has been very little heard from tenured faculty at top tier schools. This is a revolution that arises from the practicing Bar and working judges and adjunct faculty and regional law schools. The Ivory Towers may be surrounded.
What changes are afoot? One calls for offering a two year classroom experience with a placement into a supervised third year working environment. (Canadians may recognize the outlines of such a model). Drexel Law School in Philadelphia, a regional school that is part of a university that has been innovative in other fields, already offers a two year alternative. Drexel is ambitious with a young dean and a motivated faculty. Another possible change is the inclusion of more mandatory skills training. Some members of the practicing bar feel that it is not what you know, it is what you know how to do that counts. A third, and possibly the most frightening to the existing world of legal academia, is online law schools. Private players like Concord Law School have established a foothold in this field, but prestigious institutions, like my own, are looking at it now.
These changes will have a direct impact on legal information. If the accreditation rules change, I predict that many of the rules requiring accredited schools to hold specific sets of material in the library will be eliminated. A two year, skills-centered, law school will need materials, but they will be different. The LEXIS, WESTLAW and perhaps BLOOMBERG trainers, with the much desired knowledge management systems and ties to practice may be even more important, while our collections of books and data bases will pale in comparison. The concept of the online course, now fighting its way to legitimacy, may be the last straw to the centrality of the academic law library in the United States. A few great research collections may survive as historical museums of information but then we are becoming just that: museums.
If academic libraries fall into desuetude, the firms will follow. In San Francisco the local government is moving the Count Law Library into a new (old) facility on the understanding that books are vestigial. This is not news to most readers of this Blog, but it is one thing to know something is going to happen and it quite another to see it unfold. It may all be for the best, but I worry that much that is worthwhile will be lost along the way.