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Crises, Crisis Rhetoric, and Competition in Legal Education: A Sociological Perspective on the (Latest) Crisis of the Legal Profession and Legal Education


From Stanford Law and Policy Review

This article, part of a symposium on the future of legal education, examines the rhetoric of crisis today, compares it to the rhetoric of crisis in the 1930s, the closest analogue to the present, and points out that there are strikingly similar themes: too many lawyers; stagnant growth in legal services, caused in part by competitors taking legal business away; and a sense that the problem is with the law schools below the top of the legal hierarchy. The article suggests that the promotion of crisis by lawyers and law professors is as consistent with the strength of the legal profession as any purported decline. Advocates often build their reputations in part by taking sides with external critics, and in down economic times the crisis rhetoric is even more attractive and newsworthy. Lawyers end up dominating both sides of the debate about the value of a law degree – a pretty strong position, suggesting it may not be the right time to give up on law degrees. Noting that legal realists were the key individuals relatively late in the depression era who debunked the ‘too many lawyers’ theme and the attack on the more accessible law schools, the article seeks also to begin a discussion of what a new legal realist approach would be today, especially given the real problem of high tuitions and debt. Examining the relationship between competition, high tuition and debt, the article suggests that the major difference between the 1930s and the present is that there is tremendous competition today in the legal profession and in legal education – competition that US News rankings reflect but did not cause (as is true with respect to corporate law firms and The American Lawyer rankings). The market will have winners and losers, as with law firms, but, as is also true of law firms, they may not square up with the rankings hierarchy.