CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Jan. 30, the article "Law Schools' Applications Fall as Costs Rise and Jobs are Cut" appeared in The New York Times. The article addressed vast and looming changes to American legal education: Today's law students face soaring tuition costs (roughly double since 2001) and fewer job prospects. American law schools are facing a precipitous drop in student applications as a result -- by nearly half since 2010. Some experts believe some U.S. law schools will not survive these changes. They may well be right.
I am a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law, and we deal with these challenges every day. Yet what caught my attention in the article was the observation that law jobs are disappearing because research "is faster and easier, requiring fewer lawyers, and is being outsourced to less expensive locales, including West Virginia and overseas."
What an interesting comment.
It reads like an offhand observation, and the example just as easily could have been Mississippi, or Mexico, or Bangladesh for that matter. Yet I think this statement unintentionally points to some compelling opportunities for locales like West Virginia. Here's why.
First, West Virginia is, without doubt, a lower cost location for legal services. With the Internet and its many resources, West Virginia's law firms can compete with larger national and international law firms in ways not possible 20 years ago. I practiced law for a decade in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and while legal services cost a lot more in major metropolitan markets, the quality of lawyering there is not always better. It has long been my belief that regional law firms -- including firms in West Virginia -- sit in the sweet spot of the American legal market.
Second, law schools that train lawyers for these "less expensive locales" are critically important to the future of American legal education in a unique way. We don't just train lawyers. We also have ties to the local legal community. The New York Times article's point is that work that can be done elsewhere will be outsourced to West Virginia. A law school with strong ties to that local legal community offers students a career advantage -- a greater opportunity to be hired in a market that is in greater demand.
Third, law schools in any market can improve their reputation and long-term viability by offering something unique -- and a law school in an already advantaged "less expensive locale" can redouble that advantage. The WVU College of Law, for example, has the nation's leading (indeed, only) Center for Energy and Sustainable Development Law -- and of course both energy and environmentally responsible development are vitally important to our nation. This means our law school is both geographically and substantively situated help our students, and our graduates, in their careers.
Fourth, the future of American legal education belongs to innovative law schools that provide cutting-edge instruction at a reasonable price. That is no easy task, and it is made even harder by the fact that many of the best innovations in modern American legal education -- such as legal clinics and externships that offer students hands-on training -- are time-consuming and expensive to administer. The WVU College of Law houses multiple clinics and an externship program that collectively train and educate many law students each semester, and it does so in a cost-effective manner. The WVU College of Law is ranked as a top 16 "Best Value" law school and a top 33 "Go-To" law school (for job prospects at large law firms) by the National Jurist magazine. This makes West Virginia not just a "less expensive locale" for lawyers, but also a less expensive and higher value location for legal education.
Fifth, and finally, The New York Times article's comment underscores the fact that U.S. law schools (and the U.S. legal market generally) face global competition. Those American law schools that not only build upon their regional uniqueness and areas of specialization, but also are willing and able to compete globally, will be better poised to meet the challenges of the future. If the world is indeed flat, there is more opportunity for lawyers in "less expensive locales" to be engaged in practices that have international dimensions -- both as a way to garner business from other markets, and as a way to serve local clients that in previous years might have taken their international work to larger markets like New York City. And law schools in these locations can offer innovative (and marketable) educational opportunities to students from across the nation and around the world.
It is a fundamental tenet of the American system of free enterprise that market competition is beneficial. Competition provides consumers (in this case, law students) with greater value, and it stimulates innovation by the providers (in this case, law schools). In tough economic times and in a legal education market in crisis, law schools in "less expensive locales, including West Virginia," appear poised for greater success.
Bowman is an associate professor of law at the West Virginia University College of Law, where he teaches and writes on international trade law and legal education.