Leadership & Governance

What the State of Law Schools Can Teach the Rest of Higher Ed

Blake D. Morant, George Washington University Law School

February 23, 2015

Video produced by Carmen Mendoza and Lisa Philip


BECKIE SUPIANO: I'm here with Blake Morant, the dean of the George Washington University Law School and the president of the Association of American Law Schools. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us this morning.

BLAKE MORANT: Thank you so much, Beckie. I'm very, very pleased to be here with you.

BECKIE SUPIANO: So it's not the easiest time to be running a law school these days. Demand from prospective students has really tapered off. The job market for new law graduates isn't the strongest it's ever been. How are you facing these challenges at George Washington?

BLAKE MORANT: I really believe there's never been a better time to really consider getting a legal education. And just as you said before, there are many different challenges that the law school faces. I would indeed say that these challenges are pretty much standard among many institutions in higher education—the demand for services, the expense that goes into investing in an education. Those individuals who are actually considering a career, trying to think about what's going to give them the best value for their money.

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I have always said that a law degree is a degree that gives to you for a lifetime. There are many different individuals doing a variety of different things who've gone to law school. Some are traditional lawyers. Some of them are in business. Some of them are in government. All of them will tell you that the skills that they received from their legal education have really benefited them in their careers. And their career paths, which now is more of a journey than a destination.

So I'm excited about being a part of this—as I consider to be continuing evolution in American legal education.

BECKIE SUPIANO: You mentioned that some of these challenges are shared by other institutions in higher ed, and I'm curious. Some observers say that law schools are sort of a canary in a coal mine for some of the challenges that colleges in general are starting to face. And I'm curious for your perspective on that.

BLAKE MORANT: Well, it's interesting that you bring that topic up because I think it's a very common one that's being discussed, not only among law schools, but also among university administrators as a whole. The kinds of things that we need to do as higher educators, we need to prepare students for a diverse, complex, and global world. And I think we share those commonalities as law schools with higher education.

So let me give you a slight example. So one of the things that very often comes up is why are individuals spending so much money for a college degree? Well, one of the things that one can ask oneself is what are you thinking about in terms of what you want to do with your life? What kinds of skills do you really want to have?

Now notice I didn't say, "Do you have a particular job in mind?," because I really do believe that a career is a journey and not a destination. But what kinds of things motivate you, and what do you need in order to really manifest that? In a world that's so global and so complex, it's very important for legal educators to give individuals a variety of experiences that will prepare them for that diverse and global universe.

And so I think it's a worthy investment. I think it gives students a variety of different skill sets. Whether they go to undergraduate school or law school. Prepare for that very, very diverse world.

BECKIE SUPIANO: Given all of what you've been saying, are you seeing more prospective students come to law school? Not expecting to ever practice law more than you did in the past?

BLAKE MORANT: Students come to law school with a variety of different perspectives, and I think I'd like to sort of humanize it with my own experience. So I grew up in Hampton, Va. I'm an only child. I basically was—or, I was going to say, I was an Eagle Scout. I was told I'm not dead, so I'm still an Eagle Scout.

And I remember being in the Scout troop when I was only 11 years old, and the only African-American solo practitioner in Hampton mentored our troop. And it was Lawyer Smith—you called him Lawyer back then, Lawyer Smith. And he was a stately individual who struggled to keep his own practice together but also felt that it was very important to always give back to society, and encourage other people to reach their potential.

I was very much encouraged by that. And as I think about my own career, I often reflect back on him. I think that narrative really plays forward today where there's so many individuals who are trying to decide: Should I invest in a higher educational opportunity, or should I try to just maximize my fortunes in getting a job and doing what I can in order to make ends meet?

Statistics show that individuals who achieve a higher degree over their lifetime have the potential of earning so much more than if they didn't get an education. It opens up so many more opportunities to them. And today, with the global universe providing so many different opportunities for individuals, I think this is a perfect time for an individual to have that investment. So that they can take advantage of all the various things that are coming about now.

BECKIE SUPIANO: Changing gears a little bit, GW Law School's gotten some negative attention lately based on this idea of taking transfer students from lower-ranked schools where the LSAT scores wouldn't count toward the class. And I'm curious if that's an admissions practice you stand by, and for your take on that.

BLAKE MORANT: One of the things that one has to be aware of is the overall universe in terms of—and we're talking about law-school exams. In terms of what individuals have as an opportunity for them to succeed. And so when you talk about transfers, you have to look at it in the context of what the market basically suggests.

Now you bring up George Washington. I would daresay that most law schools in the United States take transfer students. It's always been a part of that universe where you have a student who goes to a particular law school, and makes a decision that, after my first year, I would like to have an experience someplace else. Perhaps I want to be in a different city. Perhaps the curriculum or program of legal education at a particular law school appeals to me more, and that will give me the opportunity to do what I really want to do with my career.

People coming into law school may have a set standard about what they want to do. And once they get there, they become rapidly probative about who they are and what they want to do. And at that point they may make a decision: I really want to go to a different law school in order to really achieve the aims that I have.

So when I hear that question, very often I will talk about it in terms of choice. That individuals will choose to go to a particular law school when they start. But then they get into law school, and they make some decisions about "I really have this in mind in terms of what I really want to do," and they may make a switch to a different school. So I look at it in that frame.

BECKIE SUPIANO: So in your experience, students are switching based on their sense of what they want to do, not just because they might be able to go to a "better law school" if they transfer?

BLAKE MORANT: I can't comment on what people's individual decisions are with regards to transferring. I do know that it's a market decision, that many students will come forward, and they'll think in that first year, "This is what I really want to do with my career" or "This is what I really want to do in terms of the program of legal education that I want." And they have those choices to make.

Now the thing that everybody has to be aware of is that transfers are not new. Ever since I've been in law school, and I'm considered an old fogey when it comes to being in law school, individuals have always transferred. I think now, though, the information flow to students and the ability to make choices with regard to what they do, and the investments that they make, give them more choices.

And so, as a result of that, you have individuals that are making a decision. I now want to go to this particular school because it offers me something that I may not have at my school. And let me add, in addition to accepting transfers, we've had people transfer out of George Washington as well.

But it's a reflection of the market, and we're basically educating professionals. I respect their decisions now, and if they're able to make those decisions based on what they feel is going to be best for them, then I respect that.

BECKIE SUPIANO: And lastly, given your role as the present of the Association of American Law Schools right now, I'm wondering how law schools can really work together in this time when competition for students seems to be really quite pressing.

BLAKE MORANT: Your question basically begs one that I think is very important right now, and it really is a balance more so than one against the other. Now one of the things that you ask is this idea of competition versus cooperation. I see it as a continuum.

And so, as a result of that, there are many different factors that we have in common with law schools. All law schools are trying to give a program of legal education that's going to prepare an individual graduate to do with their lives what they would like to do.

But there are over 205 law schools in this country. There are over 175 AALS member schools. This is a very large country, with a variety of different opportunities for individuals. So while we have commonalities, there are also differences. But those differences are what gives choice to individuals who are trying to maximize what they want to do with their careers.

So as I say that, I think the idea of competition is always going to be there, and I think that's very healthy. If I see a law school with a program that's basically addressing a need, and I look at that method, "Well, you know, that would be great to do here, but I would like to tweak it a little bit in order to make it our kind of program." I think that's healthy.

At the same time, we're all facing a lot of very similar problems. And this is why I'm so excited about being president of AALS. Because I'll have the opportunity to really have a conversation with many different law schools out there. And as I have that conversation, I'm able to weave a thread, if you will, between the kind of issues that they're dealing with and the kind of issues that many law schools are dealing with.

You brought up a couple of those. There are fewer people applying to law school today than there have been in the last, I'd say, 20 years or so. Everyone's dealing with that particular situation.

You also brought up the issue of expense. That's a very, very complex issue that basically brings up, What are we giving individuals that basically gives them value for what they're paying for? And are we doing everything we can to spend that money as efficiently and effectively as possible to give them the kind of education that they need?

When we're asking those questions, many of us are coming up with solutions that are very similar. So we're having more individuals doing innovative things with their curriculum, taking advantage of technology, and maximizing the sort of choices that people have by getting them to think probatively about marrying a law degree with their individual talents.

Those are the commonalities, and I very much look forward to highlighting those during the year of my presidency. And now that AALS is becoming more of a resource for our member schools, we're very excited about being able to share that information so that everybody in legal education gets value from it.

BECKIE SUPIANO: OK, thank you so much for your time.

BLAKE MORANT: Thank you.


Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.