Asked and Answered

 Don LeDuc on Pressures Facing the Legal Profession

By Steve Thorpe

The law profession and law schools are facing new pressures that would’ve been unimaginable a generation ago. The leaders of law firms, the courts and law schools are all re-examining assumptions and traditions in an effort to meet the challenges.

Don LeDuc joined Cooley Law School in 1975 as a professor of law. He served as dean from 1982 to 1987 and then again from 1996 to the present. He was named president of the law school in 2002. LeDuc now has the fourth-longest current continuous service as dean among 203 law schools and ranks second in total years of service as a dean.


Thorpe: What qualities separate Cooley from other law schools?  

LeDuc: First, Cooley was founded by judges and lawyers and has always emphasized practice preparation as the essence of its educational mission. Although practical legal education has been our educational focus, a new focus on practice preparation has lately taken on an almost faddish or bandwagon aspect at many other law schools. For many of them, practice preparation is an “add-on,” rather than an integral part of the curriculum and the common ground of teaching as it is here.  Nearly all our faculty members come to us with strong backgrounds in law practice and a commitment to teaching skills.

Second, more than any other law school, Cooley has included opportunity to study law in its societal mission. Legal education, as well as the legal profession, continues to be elitist and exclusive, a culture reflected in the pernicious ranking systems that value academic profiles, test scores, and “selectivity” over access and performance.  We continue to believe that opportunity and academic rigor are preferable to exclusion and soft grading. 

Third, our Strategic Plan values innovation, reflected in our year-around program, our weekend program, our two-year program, and our unmatched commitment to professionalism. Many of our innovations help provide access to those who otherwise could not attend law school due to family, work, or financial factors.

Thorpe: How much of the significantly smaller entering class this year is by design and how much is lessened demand?

LeDuc: In today’s environment, nearly every school confronts this dilemma, and must make decisions balancing lower admissions credentials, smaller entering class size, and cost of tuition and fees. Through the fall of 2013, we have maintained the minimum entering credentials, knowing that we would have a significant decline in enrollment as a result. Due to the significant decline in national applications, our entering class size is smaller than we thought it would be, but we decided to hold the line on the profile, so overall I’d say that the size of our reduction is due more to the demand.  

One factor that should be included in the analysis is the behavior of other schools.  While the data is not yet reported, it now appears that many schools in states other than Michigan have dropped their standards, taking students that they might not have admitted previously.  It now appears that reduced admissions standards may have been a significant third contributing factor in our enrollment decline.  

Thorpe: How big a factor is tuition in reduced enrollment and how can you control those increases?

LeDuc: This is hard to judge because there is a mismatch between perception and reality among applicants. Until the downturn in applications, the cost of education, while identified as one factor of importance, did not seem to be a leading factor in law school selection by students. We thought it would or should be, so by design we kept our tuition very low for many years, as well as offering considerable scholarship support for both entering and high performing students.  But students tend to select primarily based on reputation and location.

The cost of education for law students does not seem to be out of line for professional education in general, although that comparison is almost never examined. Students tend to disregard cost differences on the basis that they will cover the added expense by borrowing whatever they can to go to the school they consider best.  

One aspect that is not given sufficient public focus is that the schools do not make student loans, do not receive the money or interest from student loan payments, and do not make money on the loan process. While the majority of the funds students borrow are used for tuition and fees that go to the schools, at the large majority of law schools student loans cover living expenses that go to private providers, not the schools.

Thorpe: What other factors do you foresee affecting law school enrollments in the future?

LeDuc: Demographics will lead to a correction. Right now, Michigan and the nation have an aging lawyer population. The largest increase in Michigan bar membership growth occurred in the decade of 30-40 years ago, while in the past three years Michigan law school entering class enrollment has declined significantly. The curves of increasing retirements and declining graduates are now beginning to cross.

The national discussion about the burgeoning retirements of the baby boom generation and the threat posed to the social security system applies exactly to lawyer demographics. In Michigan, and elsewhere I believe, we will struggle to replace current lawyers with new ones for at least thirty years. Those thinking about law school should focus on where we will be in three or four years, when they would enter the profession, not on what they are hearing about now.

The other major factor is whether we will learn to deal with the vast amount of misinformation and worse that flows on the Internet. Nearly every assertion that is commonly made today is either completely wrong, overstated, or out of context.  While this is not a problem exclusively facing law schools, we seem to be a favorite target, which is odd since the quality of legal education in Michigan and nationwide is the best it has ever been.

Thorpe: Tell us about possible alliances between Cooley and other educational institutions. 

LeDuc: You’ve chosen the right word. Cooley’s Strategic Plan emphasized the value of alliances, which can be done in many forms. The form in the news most recently is “affiliation,” a relationship we just entered with Western Michigan University which is under review by the Higher Learning Commission (Western and Cooley are both accredited by them) and by the American Bar Association (Cooley only). This affiliation will be the platform for a variety of new programs, some of which will also require similar review and others not.

Cooley already has a formal general partnership with Oakland University and both informal partnerships and formal program partnerships with other colleges and universities. Most of these are joint degree programs at Western Michigan University, Oakland University, Davenport University, Olivet College, and (as of October 4) Eastern Michigan University. When our affiliation with Western is approved, all the existing partnerships will continue. We have a couple of other program partnerships in the planning stage at this point.

Thorpe: Any other observations on the future of the legal field and legal education?

LeDuc: We need more emphasis on facts and less on opinion. We need more consideration of reality and less of perception.  We need more focus on the future and less on the now. We need for the media to understand that internet and blog assertions are most often lacking in factual basis and informed opinion. We need to realize that neither the legal field nor legal education are the exclusive provinces of the biggest law firms and the most exclusive institutions.

The national law school discussion, from the president and the Department of Education to within the media, is badly premised and woefully misinformed. Legal education does not need reforming, it needs room to innovate and evolve. The current regulatory atmosphere in Washington and the current push to turn accrediting bodies into regulatory bodies is taking us in exactly the wrong direction.  

Regarding the legal field, lawyers are near the bottom in unemployment levels and near the top in compensation levels. Long-time baseball manager Casey Stengel was frequently quoted as following an assertion with the phrase “you can look it up.”  Casey could say the same about the employment and unemployment of lawyers and where they stand compared to other professions and occupations.