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Trials and Tribulations

New WNE Law Dean Says Schools Must Adjust to a Changed Climate

Eric Gouvin

Eric Gouvin says the consensus among those in legal academia is that the nation’s law schools have been “making too many lawyers for too long.”

Eric Gouvin was asked to comment on the challenges moving forward for all law schools, but especially the one at Western New England University (WNE), which he now serves as dean.

But to do so properly, he said he first needed to discuss the recent past and touch on some trends and statistics that define a changed landscape, one that came about due to many factors that he summed up by saying, “we’ve been making too many lawyers for too long.”

The ‘we’ in this case is the nation’s 201 American Bar Assoc.-accredited law schools, said Gouvin, who took the helm at WNE Law on July 1 following a short search in which he was the only real candidate (more on that later). He said these institutions readily accepted large numbers of students until quite recently, and considered such an action a responsible reply to then-long-standing laws of supply and demand when it came to the legal profession.

But those laws were changing through the first decade of this century, he went on, with a profound adjustment coming after the economy turned south in dramatic fashion just over five years ago. Over the past 10 years, and especially the past five, increasing numbers of law-school graduates have encountered difficulty finding work in their chosen profession, and this development has led to swift and profound changes in the numbers of people applying to law schools — and the numbers accepted — as would-be candidates increasingly question the return on investment in a juris doctor degree.

At WNE, for example, the school was accepting roughly 150 individuals into its day (full-time) program each year until recently, said Gouvin, noting that the number for this fall will be around 90, 40% fewer than that previous benchmark. This decline (reflective of what’s happening nationally) brings fiscal challenges for the school, prompts a host of questions about what could — or will — happen next, and even invites speculation about for how long there will still be 201 ABA-accredited law schools.

How all this came about is the subject of a compelling, if somewhat controversial, book called Failing Law Schools, authored by Brian Tamanaha, a law professor, former law-school dean, and legal theorist who admits he did some of the things he now criticizes. In a nutshell, Tamanaha contends that, in the wake of the Great Recession and its significant impact on graduates and, subsequently, law school applications, there is now solid evidence to support what many had believed for some time — that law schools, many of them desperate for high rankings in U.S. News & World Report, were luring applicants to their campuses with false promises of employment and high salaries, leaving them in considerable debt and, overall, creating “a systemic mismatch between graduates and jobs.”

Gouvin has read the book, as most in legal academia have, and doesn’t necessarily disagree with some of its main arguments — or its broad assessment of what law schools must do now.

In the current climate, he said, law schools in general, and his in particular, must do something about that mismatch by focusing on making fewer lawyers (until the market dictates otherwise), and lawyers better prepared to succeed in the marketplace.

“Law schools, in general, have not done a great job of preparing their graduates to enter the profession,” he explained. “They learn a lot of law, and that’s handy, because lawyers should know the law. But there’s so much more to being a lawyer than knowing the law.

“We want to have a graduating class that’s matched more closely to the realistic prospects for employment,” he went on, “but also a class that is graduating with the tools necessary to practice law.”

Meanwhile, in response to the fiscal challenges presented by declining enrollment, the school will implement strategies to hone or create what Gouvin called “degrees that people who won’t practice law might find useful.”

Elaborating, he said that WNE already has in place some master of law degrees (LLMs), including a popular offering in estate planning and elder law, and another in closely held businesses. These are designed for practicing lawyers looking to gain expertise in those areas, he said, adding that the school is looking to build on these offerings with new master of jurisprudence degrees. Now in the planning stages, they would be designed for professionals in non-law areas who could benefit from knowing some law.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked at length with the new dean at WNE Law about his strategic plan for the future and how to position the school for success in what are clearly changing times.

 

Making His Case

In 2001, the last time Western New England went about conducting a search for a law-school dean, Gouvin, who joined the institution’s faculty in 1991, chaired the committee that eventually chose Arthur Gaudio, then with the University of Wyoming School of Law.

This time, Gouvin made a committee unnecessary.

Retracing the events of the past several months, he said that, by late this past winter, he was being recruited by several law schools searching for deans. He eventually became a semi-finalist for the post at the University of New Mexico and one of three candidates invited for a final interview at Northern Kentucky University. He came away from that session thinking he had cinched a new professional mailing address.

“I thought it went so well that they were going to offer me the job on the way to the airport,” he recalled with a laugh.

That didn’t happen, and while NKU was still mulling its options, faculty members at WNE, wary of losing Gouvin, were talking to Gaudio about accelerating his announced intentions to join them in the classroom.

This set in motion a chain of events — including interviews and a formal presentation to administrators at WNE — that had Gouvin canceling further out-of-town interviews and eventually moving his many books, including Failing Law Schools and several biographies of Henry Ford, and an impressive collection of 1975 Boston Red Sox memorabilia, down the hall instead of halfway across the country.

As he talked with BusinessWest while still in the process of moving into his new office, he said there are a number of items on his to-do list. The first is introducing, or re-introducing, himself to the law school’s many constituencies — students, faculty, alums, and community partners — in his new capacity, which he likened to being the CEO of a company.

“Anything that someone who runs an organization is responsible for — from personnel to finance to keeping the lights on and the doors open — that’s all on my desk,” he explained. “I’m responsible for making all the pieces come together — alumni functions, career services, admissions, compliance, the academic piece, and all the other moving parts.

“When you’re sitting in the dean’s seat, you have a different perspective on how everything is or should be, as opposed to when you’re looking at it from a faculty member’s point of view,” he continued. “You begin to see the bigger picture and how it all has to fit together.”

There are several other matters at hand, he said, including annual discussions about classes and potential additions, and the honing of programs, such as the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which he led prior to becoming dean.

But the most pressing matter, obviously, is crafting a comprehensive response to the dramatically altered landscape he described, an assignment facing the leaders of virtually every law school in the country, he said, stressing, again, that this is a nationwide phenomenon.

The severity of the situation is driven home by statistics showing that, in 2004, there were 100,000 applications to those 201 law schools, and during this most recent admissions cycle, the number was roughly half that — 54,000, with only speculation about when and even if that figure will start trending upward.

The reasons for this precipitous decline are many, and they come back to ROI, say industry analysts, noting that, in recent years, college students and those in many professions have become increasingly skeptical about whether a law degree is a ticket to success (a dramatic change in outlook from 40 or even 20 years ago), especially when many graduates are towing huge amounts of debt as they leave the commencement stage.

The situation resulted mostly from what observers have called ‘overproduction,’ or too much supply, of lawyers. And this became a vicious cycle at many schools. Desperate for high rankings in U.S. News & World Report, which were determined in large part by per-pupil spending, Tamanaha charges, many law schools greatly increased tuition and continued to accept large numbers of students, putting graduates heavier into debt and injecting them into a job market they couldn’t crack.

Thus, changing current perceptions about a JD is among the many challenges facing law schools, said Gouvin, adding that this can come about only with direct evidence that the employment landscape is changing, and for WNE, this means enabling more graduates to thrive in the job market.

 

Giving Testimony

In this altered environment, law schools must change and adapt, and for many this will be a tall order, said Gouvin, who believes WNE is better positioned to handle that assignment than many others, primarily because it has already started the process, and has historically been at or ahead of the curve when it comes to preparing graduates for the workplace.

Part of the equation is simply limiting enrollment, he noted.

“Finding jobs for 90 people is a lot easier than finding jobs for 150,” he explained, adding that, if he’s right in this thinking, both the graduating students and the law school will benefit. “Law schools are going to be judged by how well they’re placing their students, and that’s why we have to make sure we’re doing as much as we can to support our students.”

Eventually, the job market will improve and demand for a law degree will increase, he went on, citing factors that include everything from the rising U.S. population, which will likely create the need for more legal services and professionals who can provide them, to the simple fact that many of those who joined the profession when it was exploding in the early and mid-’70s, will soon be retiring.

In the meantime, though, law schools must contend with the present challenge of making graduates better able to put their law degree to effective use.

“I want to make us even more focused on what we’ve always done,” Gouvin told BusinessWest, “and that’s prepare students to enter the practice of law, mostly at small to medium-sized firms in small to medium-sized cities in the Northeast.

“I think we can do better at making students practice-ready — a lot of law schools don’t even try,” he continued. “And they’re only now starting to come around to it.”

One key to making graduates more prepared for the workplace is experiential learning opportunities, which WNE provides in a number of ways, said Gouvin, adding that more than 75% of graduates take advantage of these opportunities, and he wants to push that number higher.

Programs include internships, externships, and clinics, he said, adding that the school has the strategic advantage of being the only law school in Western Mass. that gives its students solid opportunities to work with area judges at all levels of the judicial system, from district to federal.

Meanwhile, there are several clinics, or programs that give students the opportunity to work with area residents and businesses under the guidance of legal professionals and professors. The current roster includes clinics in small business, housing, real estate, international human rights, and other areas.

“We do take seriously the idea that students ought to know what lawyers do and why they do it,” he said, “and we’re going to make even more changes to enforce that message.”

While working to improve the job prospects of students, WNE Law and its new dean must also devise strategies for coping with the sharp reduction in tuition revenue that comes when incoming classes are 40% smaller than they were only five years ago.

“That’s a real challenge — tuition is a huge driver,” said Gouvin, noting that, after scholarships and other forms of direct aid are subtracted, most students are paying roughly $25,000 to attend the school.

Cutbacks to faculty have been minimal because of a few recent retirements, he said, but long-term, the school needs to replace at least some of the lost revenue, and one strategy is to create more and better programs that will attract those who don’t intend to practice law but can benefit from some of the skills imparted on those who do.

Those aforementioned master of jurisprudence degrees are another emerging trend, he noted, adding that several law schools, such as the one at Drake University in Iowa, have added such programs, and more are exploring similar options.

WNE is in the early developmental stages of such programs, said Gouvin, who was reluctant to offer details but did say they represent opportunities for the law school to broaden its student base.

“There are a number of professionals in non-law areas, such as insurance, financial planning, and accounting, who need to know quite a bit of law, but they’re not going to practice law,” he noted. “We’re exploring options to provide something of value to these individuals.”

 

Final Arguments

Looking ahead, Gouvin said the questions hanging over every law school in the country concerns when the situation regarding supply and demand will improve, and to what degree.

“Demand was artificially depressed during the downturn — this was a period of unprecedented economic disaster. As the economy improves, I think we’re going to find what we always find when the economy improves — that we’re going to need more attorneys.”

Until that time comes, though, law schools must be diligent, creative, and ever more focused on helping graduates succeed.

And the new dean at WNE believes the school is certainly up for that challenge.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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