Curricular Change in Legal Education

Posted: 28 Jul 2020

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Date Written: July 2, 2020


This article surveys basic changes in legal education from 1973 to 2017-2018, using a comparison of the sizes of the student body with the professoriate, and changes in the allocation of faculty resources over this period. It offers evidence on the reasons for declining bar passage rates and the decline in preparation for business and transactional law practice.

The paper documents law school enrollments over this period. In summary, student enrollments have been on a roller coaster, and now have declined to 1973 levels after a 40% increase. At the same time, faculty numbers have increased by 70%. While this has resulted in more favorable faculty-student ratios, bar passage rates nationally have declined from 82% to 72%. This is a classic picture of a failing industry, which high fixed costs due to the fixed cost of tenured faculty and cyclical revenues, forced to raise tuition to support what has become a bloated faculty. It also raises questions of whether declining bar passage rates are caused by the declining academic credentials law school applicants, or modern failures in teaching. I will not cover the blame placed on U.S. News ratings or ABA changes (expansion) in costly curricular requirements, so ably covered by Professor Victor Gold.

The study documents that resources have been diverted (disproportionately) from foundational and required courses to more academic and “boutique” courses. Some of this may be attributed to the increased number of law faculty members who hold advanced degrees in other fields, which may divert part of their teaching to courses with an affinity for their graduate training, rather than professional preparation. The proliferation of such courses, and of courses driven by political and cultural choices dilutes any focus on preparation for the practice of law or bar passage. It also sends a message that professional preparation is no more important than the research interests of various teachers, or than their interest in “social justice.”

Suggested Citation

Carney, William J., Curricular Change in Legal Education (July 2, 2020). Available at SSRN:

William J. Carney (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1221 Fairview Road, N.E.
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-373-7198 (Phone)
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