The past decade has generally seen a significant contraction in the admission of legal graduates in the U.S., largely influenced by broader economic trends. The ABA Journal reported in 2017,
For nearly 40 years starting in 1971, law schools had an average first-year class size of 246 students, peaking to 262 in 2010. Since then, that average has dropped 31 percent to an average of 182 students.
This trend reversed last year, which has been attributed in part to greater political polarization in the U.S., especially around key legal and constitutional issues. The Law School Admission Council volume comparisons over 5 years suggests a higher volume of applicants since 2018, which has continued into mid-2019.
This increase in law school is mirrored by the total LSAT tests administered in recent years, with 2019 figures skewed higher in part by a new digital LSAT and three new additional test dates (on top of the historic six dates prior).
Although recovery of the American economy and job market may explain this interest in part, the continued increases are being attributed to politics to such an extent that it is being dubbed a “Trump bump.”
In this environment, the University of Buffalo School of Law is poised to embark on what might appear to be an unusual endeavour, offering an undergraduate degree in law. This isn’t an undergraduate degree in the same way that an L.LB or J.D. is technically a pre-graduate level degree. It is a Bachelor of Arts, one which could be used to apply for law school, but certainly isn’t intended for that purpose.
The announcement, made last week, was covered in the New York Law Journal, where they interviewed James G. Milles, Vice Dean for Undergraduate Studies, School of Law, who explained the rationale as follows,
Whole new careers have developed to support legal work. Many of these careers do not require a licensed lawyer, but do require some understanding of the law among other technical skills.
The school’s website describes the purpose of the degree even further:
Why a degree in Law?
People in a wide range of careers encounter legal issues on a regular basis. By gaining an understanding of the basic functional areas of law, you will have a competitive advantage in the marketplace, wherever your career takes you.
- Human resource professionals routinely encounter issues regarding employment, labor, and contract law.
- Bankers and financiers often deal with matters involving tax, corporate law, securities, privacy law, and intellectual property.
- Executives and administrators in creative industriesencounter contract law and intellectual property issues.
- Government employees may be responsible for implementing or complying with administrative regulations or constitutional limitations.
These and other professionals may not be required to practice in a court of law, but having some familiarity with the law will help them understand the legal requirements imposed upon them and how best to work with legal professionals when the need arises.
Client-driven reforms of the legal industry have been one of the most significant impetus for innovation and change, with lawyers otherwise recalcitrant and reluctant to modify business structures that are profitable for them (or alternatively, profitable enough).
Industries seeking to manage legal costs even further, or with a significant interest in promoting further operational compliance with regulations in a proactive manner, may find these graduates more suitable for these roles. Miles emphasizes this in an interview with UBNow,
The market for legal services has changed from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market. Businesses are looking more closely at their ‘legal spend’ and seeking ways to reduce their reliance on lawyers.
Not only would graduates have some understanding of the law to effectively communicate and cooperate with in-house or external counsel, but they would also understand the limits of the law and be able to not think like a lawyer. The traditional vestiges of law school education have some very significant limitations in the actual business world.
There is a difference between thinking like a lawyer, and knowing how a lawyer thinks. Business and regulatory professionals often find the latter to be more useful than the former.
The degree grew out of a minor in law, which was launched last year. What makes it unusual is that instead of being offered by a business school or an arts school, it is being offered by the school of law. And it is not the first do so.
In 2014, the University of Arizona became the first major U.S. university to offer a Bachelor of Arts in law through its law school. This offering became so popular that it has exceeded its traditional J.D. graduates. They provide a long list of career options where a formal legal education would be beneficial, but for which a J.D. is not required:
In addition to the BA in Law, Arizona offers a 3 + 3 BA/JD, which allows for the most successful of the BA students to continue on with a formal career in law if interested.
Evaluation of the first graduates emerging from this program observed that it has assisted in the democratization of legal education, and has spurned innovation in their region.
Whereas innovation within traditional legal education has often proven challenging, in part due to internal resistance from tenured faculty, school policies, or even general inertia, innovation within law schools offering alternative education have a greater ability to consider different pedagogical approaches.
The demand in Canada based on LSAC statistics, in comparison, have been largely stable, and do not reflect the cyclical nature of American applications. However, the resistance to change in legal education has been mirrored on both sides of the border. These new undergraduate BA degrees in law provide another means through which law school administrators can find innovative ways to deliver legal education within their own law schools.
What these American trends also demonstrate, including features of the Trump Bump, is that legal education is not simply intended solely for the purposes of creating lawyers in private practice.
Robert Reich, author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good, states in The Guardian that the contemporary political challenges facing the U.S. belie traditional partisan or left-right ideological divides. Instead, he proposes, it is a divide between oligarchy and democracy,
The oligarchs know politicians won’t bite the hands that feed them. So as long as they control the money, they can be confident there will be no meaningful response to stagnant pay, climate change, military bloat or the soaring costs of health insurance, pharmaceuticals, college and housing.
The only way to overcome the oligarchy [is] …creating a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of working-class, poor and middle-class Americans who will fight for democracy and oppose oligarchy.
White, black and Latino; union and non-union; evangelical and secular; immigrant and native-born – all focused on ending big money in politics, stopping corporate welfare and crony capitalism, busting up monopolies and stopping voter suppression.
An accessible, affordable, and effective education in law outside of a professional law degree is invaluable in achieving these goals.
Legal education continues to be a crucial and essential element for ensuring that we have a vibrant democracy that values and cherishes our legal system, and that society is only enriched when those values are also shared outside of the legal profession. In this context, providing more education to a broader segment of the population can only be a positive outcome.