Legal Profession Blog 6-4-08

June 3, 2008

Coming Soon ... to China: A New ABA-Accredited Law School

[by Bill Henderson]

This post is about new ABA-approved law schools.  Some will struggle mightily and worsen the economic prospects of local lawyers.  Others may transform the U.S. legal profession. Let's start with the former.

There is a story in the National Law Journal that chronicles the rapid rise in the number of new law schools seeking ABA-approval--ten new schools are now in works.  See Leigh Jones, A Deluge of Law Schools.  Likewise, in April, the ABA Journal reported on a $50 million dollar appropriation by the New York legislature to underwrite the creation of three new state-sponsored law schools.

According to the stories, the rationale for many of these schools is local economic development.  Although the notion of a lawyer shortage will no doubt be met with skepticism by many, it does happen, at least in a limited form.  For example, during the 1990s, places like Austin and San Diego had a shortage of skilled transactional lawyers to service the bevy of emerging high-tech businesses.  Sensing the opportunity, a large number of Am Law 200 firms opened branch offices in both metropolitan areas. 

Setting aside the obvious question of whether new law school graduates can service effectively clients with sophisticated legal needs (the local lawyers in Austin and San Diego in the early 1990s were outmatched), the prerequisite to all this is client demand.  How is a new local law school going to spark economic development within a local economy that has a paucity of entrepreneurial activity (perhaps because many young people have decamped for Austin and San Diego)?  From a public subsidy perspective, this seems like the proverbial bridge to nowhere.  Further, it is likely to depress the earnings of solo and small firm lawyers.  See, e.g., Regional Law Schools and Lawyer Income.

Yet, the exact opposite circumstances now prevail in China, and a JD degree from an ABA-approved law school is seen as the answer.  Specifically, according to this story from Inside Higher Ed, Peking University is opening a new law school that will offer an American-style J.D. degree. 


There are at least three reasons why we should take notice:  (1) Jeffrey Lehman, who formerly served as dean of Michigan Law and president of Cornell University, has been named the chancellor and founding dean; (2) "the school plans to seek accreditation from the American Bar Association" so that its students can take the bar exams in all US jurisdictions; and (3) "Like any American law school, the courses will be taught in English, the cases will be from American law – and most of the professors will be from American law schools."

What is driving the demand?  Multinational law firms want foreign nationals with U.S. legal training.  I am told by a well-connected law school administrator that, according to Lehman and his backers, the ubiquitous LLM degree fails to fully socialize Asian students into U.S.-style lawyering. Moreover, the degree is now so common that it carries an increasingly weak signal of ability.  Assuming that Peking University can be sufficiently selective (and the first class had 55 admits out of 210 applicants), many large American and British firms will hire its graduates for their growing China offices.  If that happens, we can expect the number of applicants to skyrocket.

So consider this scenario, which is certainly plausible.  With all of China as an applicant pool, Peking University's entering credentials could be extremely high (like any other ABA-approved law school, its students will take the LSAT).  Philanthropists interested in international affairs will be drawn to the school and help build its endowment. The school will buy the library of a U.S. law school that decides to throw in the towel.  If Peking is ranked like any other ABA-approved law school, it could easily debut in Tier 1, which would further fuel demand.  In turn, Jeffrey Lehman will have little trouble recruiting high profile U.S. faculty to teach at the school as visitors.  The opportunity will be seen as an extremely valuable and prestigious opportunity -- essentially tagging some professors as truly international scholars.

I am told that similar plans are underway at the University of Melbourne and at a Korean university. It  seems to me, however, that Lehman's franchise may be a crown jewel.  As a first mover in China, Peking University has the opportunity to create an Asian analogue to Harvard Law.  It is likely that only a vision this large could attract the services of someone like Jeffrey Lehman.  Wow.