The Single Biggest Administrative Mistake Law Schools Are Making

Much has been said about the training of law students. Indeed, while it may seem like a recent discussion, this discussion on how best to prepare law students for their legal careers appears in the very first of law review articles. Should they be deeply immersed in theoretical underpinning of the law (a conscious decision made by the early law schools), enrolled in experiential apprenticeship type training (buzz words we often see today), or a combination of the two? If a combination, how should theory versus practice be weighted, and how many years and hours in class should this take? These are important questions to ask — and asked they are. By schools, the media, students, alumni, and, of late, even the federal government. But there is an equally important but far less sensationalized question which, if answered and implemented correctly, could have a substantial impact on the above debate. Namely, "How should a law school be run?"

There are essentially three components to running a law school: input, throughput, and output. These core areas are broken down into multiple departments, of course. Admissions is most associated with input, e.g. “Bring us the most qualified and diverse class possible,” throughput with faculty and pedagogy (“Teach those highly qualified and diverse students”), and output with employment (“Find them jobs”) and then development (“Have them give back to the school”). It makes sense, especially because these core components are readily imagined as occurring in sequence, i.e. input –> throughout –> output. But that is not how it happens, and thus the problem.

If you have worked in a law school for years (I have worked at two private and one public law school), or spent a deal of time at one (we have consulted for many now), that line looks much more like a hub and spoke system. The Dean’s Office acts as the hub, with the larger world view and mandate for the direction the law school seeks to be traveling toward, and each department a spoke from that hub. Faculty are often a dotted line spoke but a bolded department, with their own governance and less interaction with the other departments. But regardless, unfortunately, most all of these spokes rarely communicate with one another, and for many intents and purposes act as fiefdoms, albeit with the same monarchy (the dean).

What have we observed real-time at law schools when this happens? There is palpable internal chaos that is impossible to hide from the outside world. In the age of social media and message boards, I would simply say that this fiefdom phenomenon creates the conditions for a school to be beaten up on online. The Dean writes an external memo but doesn't consult the CSO and gets basic market facts wrong — and is too optimistic. This is a real life example from a number of schools a few years ago. I won't share the media links to such memos, but a number of schools were eviscerated by the media over them. Or, for an everyday example, an admissions officer is asked about employer outreach and has to use a very canned and basic response — which then gets reported online. I could go on with countless more examples. Faculty not knowing staff, staff not knowing faculty. At schools with 50 employees. It violates every principle of organizational leadership and cohesion. And it is rife in academia.

It's one thing to spot an obvious problem and quite another to solve it. And this problem is not easily solved. But as a firm, it is one of the core areas on which we focus. Fortunately, we have learned a great deal from those aforementioned visits, and we have borrowed from the corporate world. So while we focus on many possible solutions to the "hub and spoke" problem, one simple task is to rotate staff through departments. Have a CSO member go on a recruiting trip with admissions. Have an admissions officer sit in on a CSO counseling session. Have an alumni and development officer help recruit incoming students. When I was a dean for career services, I encouraged/cajoled/befriended and begged faculty to come with me to meet with law firms. Who best to speak on environmental law at a firm with that practice than a leading authority on environmental policies. This rotation is only bound by the will to do so and the imagination of where to put whom. When it happens you often see, quite early, wonderful results. Perhaps even more beneficially, you also may find a hidden "diamond in the rough" employee that excels in a different area, or a faculty member who eagerly takes on an active role in stewardship of the law school, and then becomes a dean herself. But even if none of the above happens, you start breaking down the walls of the fiefdoms and see multiple departments working toward the common goal of creating value for students.

This all likely sounds obvious to those who have worked in law schools for a good while. Yet it is one of those problems that's easily ignored — but that has far-reaching and deleterious effects on schools. The only solution starts at the top with a commitment to break the walls down. I hope this brief reminder helps to start with that process: great things happen when law schools work together for a larger purpose.

Edit update: This came to us via email from a law school administrator after we posted, too strong of an addition not to share: "some of the disconnect is patched over by entrepreneurial staff who take informal measures to work more collaboratively. Do you have, for instance, the practice of copying certain people on emails or holding monthly brown bags to bring offices together.

"But there usually aren’t formal systems in place to make that collaboration easy, or even to incentivize it. The systems-level approach has to come from the top. I think it adds real value if you’re able to do that with schools."