When Law Schools Start Offering Arts Degrees

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.


  1. Why does it have to framed as “outside” the legal profession? Aren’t many of these alternative careers paths like a compliance officer or patent examiner participating in the legal profession just as much as lawyers? Does this speak to the value of law outside traditional work as a lawyer at a law firm or does it speak more to the failure of law schools to adapt to changing times which offer new and alternatives pathways to a career in law?

  2. Unintended consequences are usually bad. Once in a while, they’re good.

    This will dovetail nicely with the rise of Self Represented Litigants. Just you watch. Give it 10 yrs, and somebody that took a couple of these courses for career reasons, runs into trouble in their personal life, they will have a better feel and understanding of law in general, which will help them to navigate their personal issue through the courts, be it civil or criminal.


  3. Simona Cardenas

    I think the characterization of the launch of this new undergraduate degree as being motivated by student needs is probably misguided.

    The University of Buffalo law school has been struggling to deal with the same enrollment pressures that are causing a wave of law school closures across the US. They’re staffed for around 650 students, but have been struggling with declining class sizes. Even with the small recent uptick in their class sizes, they only have about 440 students. They’ve struggled with low rankings (US news ranks them as 104th) and challenging employment outcomes (one source I follow ranks them as 80th). Being a public law school, staff reductions like schools like Whittier tried before closing may not be realistic for them, so the need is to get more students in seats.

    If you look at the UBNow article on this new program, the vice dean is implying that salaries for graduates of the undergraduate program are probably going to be lower than for their law grads, which doesn’t inspire confidence. (US News estimates median salaries for their law grads at $52-56k.) And a number of the employment options mentioned on the web page for the undergraduate program don’t seem realistic. For example, they mention e-discovery as one option, but their curriculum doesn’t include a law and technology course.

    I have no doubt more struggling law schools will try to launch this type of program, but these moves seem more cynical and institution-oriented rather than motivated by student needs and outcomes.

  4. John Juba,
    The distinction here is not the function that the graduate is playing, but whether they are a member of a regulated profession. The very notion of regulation and its necessity will certainly come into question in the future.

    John Smith,
    Certainly, this has always been a part of why many of us promote general legal literacy for the public, to allow them to be more self-sufficient when legal issues inevitably arise. The legal system is supposed to belong to the public, but the lack of access to accurate legal information has historically operated as a barrier for this democratization of the law.
    I also caution that this doesn’t necessarily render lawyers obsolete or useless, because a degree like this would not be a substitute for the professional advice obtained from someone who dedicates a significant portion of their life to the law. Even in those circumstances, it’s often helpful to work with clients who have some understanding of the law, so that there are reasonable expectations of outcomes, and some sense of what can practically accomplished.

    I don’t question at all that at least part of this is financially driven by the educational institutions.
    Lawyer salaries have already been driving downwards with broader economic trends. Nobody would expect these undergraduate degree graduates to have competitive salaries at the outset with graduates from a law program. As with all graduates, it’s the salary progression, and the career opportunities that emerge in the long-term, that will demonstrate the broader market utility of this training, and hopefully, recognized accordingly through remuneration.

  5. For what its worth, Carleton University in Ottawa has had an undergraduate program in Law/Legal Studies for decades. It also offers a Masters degree in the same program. In that sense, this is not an entirely innovative development coming out of the USA. Its really about the content of the program.

    While it may be good for more people to have a broader access to legal education, they should also know clearly what (and what they are not) getting – a professional law degree. The Carleton program is very theory based, and may be good for people looking for policy understanding, but it is not anything close to a law school, by design – they even say so in their faculty promo material. It might be interesting to know better what this program’s graduates end up actually doing in terms of work – do they go on to get their JD’s at a formal law school, or do they work in legal-related jobs in government or industry, or do they move on to something different entirely?

    At a more practical level, the reality still is that there is an overabundance of law school grads seeking a relatively small pool of articling and entry level law job opportunities in Canada – the market for law school grads is not what it was 20 years ago. With programs such as the LPP and easy qualification certification for foreign law grads to also enter the practice in Canada, its one thing to say that greater legal education and awareness is a good thing (and I agree) but its another to imply that its going to improve their job prospects any more than other undergraduate program options.

  6. RA,

    There are quite a few degrees out there comparable to Carleton.

    What was unique about this one is that it is being offered by the faculty of law. As Simona flags above, this is certainly driven in part by law school’s need to increase finances. But it’s also a unique approach towards taking legal scholarship and applying in a different way.

    For all the strengths of other offerings focusing on law, they are still degrees offered from other faculties. That’s a distinction worth highlighting.