Sometimes, to protect and promote the long-term interest of stakeholders, leaders have to take difficult public positions. The decision won’t be popular or clearly right at the time, yet the risks of deflecting or avoiding a firm stance are just too high, at least for the collective.  For legal education, one of the best examples of this type of leadership occurred in 2014 when Dan Rodriguez was serving as President of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS).  

See Dan’s first post: Legal Education and the Two Kinds of Innovation (077)

Although we did not know it at the time, legal education was halfway through a historic decline in enrollment, tumbling from an entering class of 52,488 in 2010 to a low of 37,320 in the fall of 2017 (-28.9%).  We have to go back to 1973 to find a smaller 1L cohort, with 37,018 students spread over 151 ABA-accredited law schools.  In contrast, by 2014, when Dan became president of the AALS, there were 204 accredited schools.  That’s a lot more brick-and-mortar infrastructure to divide up roughly the same number of students.

During Dan’s one-year term as AALS President, virtually every law school dean in the country was struggling to find the right message for internal and external audiences.  Do you emphasize the cyclical nature of admissions and the likelihood of a substantial rebound? Or do you find a way to broach the topic of fundamental and permanent change? Further, these decisions were not being made in a vacuum.  As applications and enrollments continued to decline, faculty were looking at how peer schools were responding. Alumni were also sharing their views on the changing nature of law practice. Tradeoffs between rankings, deficit spending and long-term planning had to be discussed with university leadership. In short, there was no way for deans to avoid being second-guessed.

What would be useful and welcomed, however, would be a strong position taken by a highly respected dean who is also President of the AALS.  And that’s exactly what Dan Rodriguez did in the fall of 2014 in a high-profile and widely read story in the New York Times. See Elizabeth Olson, “Law School Is Buyers’ Market, With Top Students in Demand,” Dec. 1, 2014.  Rather than minimizing or spinning the numbers, Dan forthrightly acknowledged the deep discounting that was occurring throughout the law school hierarchy, including his own elite school.

That was a brave and risky position, primarily because many law professors believed that the drop in applications was due to several years of relentless negative stories in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Dan thus opened himself up to claims that he was feeding the beast. Yet, denying the numbers risked a near-complete erosion legal education’s credibility with external stakeholders. Dan, as the president of the AALS and the sitting dean of a highly respected law school, stepped up and acknowledged, in effect, “This is real. This matters.  We [all legal educators at all law schools] need to confront this.” Further, he didn’t moralize.  He delivered the message by example.

I was greatly impressed by Dan’s willingness to be a decisive leader when there was literally no short-term benefit to him. Here is what I wrote the day after the New York Times article appeared.

I applaud Dan Rodriguez for this leadership instincts.  He is being transparent and honest. Several years ago the leadership of the AALS went to great lengths to avoid engagement with the media. Dan has gone the opposite direction, inviting the press into our living room and kitchen.  Want to know what leadership and judgment look like?  It looks like Dan’s interview with Elizabeth Olson.

See “The Market for Law School Applicants — A Milestone to Remember,” LWB, Dec. 2, 2014.

Now, four years later, as 1L enrollments are up a modest but welcomed 3 percent, see ABA 509 Disclosure Overview (Dec. 14, 2018), I think Dan Rodriguez deserves a substantial share of the credit for helping wind down a period of harsh, broad-brush criticism of legal education and ushering in a new era of significant ferment and innovation.  Those paying close attention to legal ed can readily find a lot of cool stuff happening at many law schools. Further, many of us are focused on issues of cost and scalability. This includes the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP), where Dan provided indispensable early- and middle-stage help to get us off the ground (more on IFLP in two weeks).

Dan is both an early adopter and opinion leader in legal education. He is also someone very engaged on social media and a prolific podcaster at Legal Talk Network.  Thus, after it became clear that Legal Evolution was gaining traction, Dan was the first invited contributor. He was also the first person to accept. (You might have noticed his name in the right sidebar for over a year.) But alas, the duties of being a law school dean kept him at 150% capacity.  With one semester of post-deanship sabbatical under this belt (at Stanford Law), Dan has finally collected his thoughts.  We all look forward to his future contributions.

What’s next? See Legal Education and the Two Kinds of Innovation (077)