Polsby in Washington Post: Fixed Costs v. Flexibility

In the view of Mason Law Dean Daniel Polsby, proposals by the American Bar Association (ABA) that loosen accreditation rules for full-time faculty could prove valuable to law schools.

The first of two proposals, approved during the ABA's annual meeting, would require law schools to offer full-time faculty some form of job security short of tenure. The second proposal would not require any job security provided schools attract and retain full-time faculty and protect "academic freedom." The proposals now go to public comment, with the more popular of the two possibly going into effect as early as 2014. 

The proposed change "would be helpful because we could acquire faculty without getting into a lifetime relationship," Polsby told a reporter for The Washington Post. "The demand for legal education ebbs and flows. Sometimes we get more customers, sometimes less...As a manager with a budget, I want the ability to respond."

According to Polsby, tenured faculty salaries are a fixed cost that represent roughly a quarter of the law school's budget. 

"Most of the big salaries I have to deal with are instructional faculty," Polsby said. "A tenured faculty member is a fixed cost. I would like to have fewer fixed costs and more flexibility to decide whether I want someone for one semester or one year or three semesters or six semesters."

Law school tuition has risen much faster than the rate of inflation at a time when high-paying legal employment is harder to come by. As a result, the economics of the legal industry have generated greater concern over the high cost of legal education.  

An end to tenure at law schools? The Washington Post, August 19, 2013. By Catherine Ho. 

"Changes to faculty tenure are the latest sign that the economics of the legal industry, which once held the promise of lifelong job security, are changing. Law school tuition has been rising much faster than the rate of inflation. In 2011, tuition for private law schools was 2.5 times what it cost in 1985, after adjusting for inflation, according to Law School Transparency, a nonprofit that seeks to make legal education more affordable. Tuition for public law schools was 5.3 times as expensive.At the same time, the economic collapse that began in 2008 forced many law firms to dramatically reduce the number of first-year lawyers they hired, leading to the lowest levels of employment for new graduates since 1996, and a growing proportion of them carrying loans of $120,000 or more.

"'The reason this is a pressing issue now and not three years ago is because of the ever-increasing concern about the cost of legal education,' Treanor said. 'There are fewer opportunities for students to earn the kind of big salaries that made it an economically wise decision to take on the cost of law school tuition. So as there are fewer high paid jobs, there’s a greater focus on how you cut costs so that it becomes economically sensible for students to enroll in law school.'” 

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