Law Schools’ Applications Fall as Costs Rise and Jobs Are Cut

~ The New York Times, January 30, 2013

Obama Says Law School Should Be Two, Not Three, Years

~ The New York Times, August 23, 2013

As law students, we are not immune from the rest of the world’s view towards our profession and law schools specifically.  We see the articles with headlines declaring law school a waste of time and money, featuring case studies of unemployed law school grads waiting tables with over $200,000 of student debt.  At Columbia alone, applications fell between 20-25% in the last few years.  There is stiff competition and top law schools are feeling the pressure to decrease student/faculty ratios, maintain excellence, and fundraise amid declining enrollment.

It was in the context of concerns about law school in general that Student Senate has tried a variety of methods to increase student accessibility to the administration in order to give students a voice in decisions at Columbia Law. First, surveys were issued to try and gauge what was most important to students and where they would like to see some changes. Then, Town Halls and open Senate Meetings were conducted, where students could air grievances and voice concerns that Senate may not be aware of. Finally, this year, in collaboration with Dean Greenberg-Kobrin, Senate created focus groups, where students interact directly with administrative officials in closed-door meetings to help constructively bring about change.

Nona Farahnik, CLS ’12 and 2011-2012 Student Senate President, was instrumental in inaugurating these surveys.  Farahnik believed the surveys were important because “it was clear” that “there were issues that the administration and faculty were not even aware of” that mattered to students.  There was also a misconception that everyone was here “to get a degree and get out, not to be part of a community,” and Farahnik hoped that the survey could help the administration realize that many students did care about CLS.  Part of the first survey included a comment box, which allowed students to express general thoughts and feelings about CLS.  Farahnik thought the comments “were pure gold,” expressing ideas “that nobody would go up to a professor or administrator to say” but still needed to be said.  Farahnik put the comments in the faculty boxes so that they could see, first hand, how students felt about CLS.

After the first survey, Senate decided to take it to the next level and open up some Senate meetings about specific topics so students could discuss their suggestions and grievances directly with Senate.  Hannah Zale, a current Student Senator who was also on Senate last year, said the goal of the meetings was to “get a general pulse from students regarding the broader areas they would like to have Senate work on and shape Senate’s agenda for main action items for each semester.”  Armed with that knowledge, Senate could “direct whatever limited political capital we have with the administration towards what students care about the most.” The open Senate Meetings differ from Town Halls, which, according to Zale, are used to gauge “reaction to controversial topics, like the Town Hall that was held last year to discuss the future of human rights programming at CLS.”

Zale, who has attended each Town Hall and open Senate meeting in the past two years, finds that they allow “students to feel comfortable raising issues and commenting on important topics.”  The one drawback to these meetings, believes Zale, is that they were mainly aimed at Senate, with Senate having to then take the affirmative step of interacting with the administration, guided by the discussion in the meetings.

Which is why Student Senate, together with Dean Greenberg-Kobrin, created focus groups in the fall of 2013 to bring together students and administrative officials.  While George Zhang, current President of Student Senate, declined to comment on these focus groups, preferring to keep their progress secret, in an initial email to all students, Senate shed some light on the goal of the focus groups.  The email invited students to participate in focus groups to “generate…constructive dialog [sic] between students and administrative offices across CLS.”   The administrative offices chosen for focus groups, according to the email, include Student Services, Career Services, SJI, Admissions, Registration Services, Financial Aid, Dean’s Office, and Alumni Relations. Dean Greenberg-Kobrinthought that the groups would be crucial in ensuring “continuing open channels of communication” between students and the administration.  Zale agreed that they have the potential to better represent student opinion as they “are one step closer close to the source as Senate no longer needs to be the middleman between the administration and the students.”

Despite the positive hopes and goals for the focus groups, it seems the student body is largely unaware of their existence.  Several students reached by the Muckraker were not aware of them. Nithin Kumar, a 3L, had “no clue” about the focus groups.  His explanation was that he “never reads” student service emails. Abby Coster, another 3L, had also “never heard” of the focus groups.  Other students who wished to remain off the record were also unaware of these groups, and some were skeptical about their chances for success.  While the increased communication between students and the administration directly is clearly a step in the right direction, and cutting out Senate as the middlemen seems prudent, only time will tell whether these focus groups bring about constructive change at CLS and build trust between the administration and students.

 

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It’s time to FOCUS.

 

Illustration by: Minji Reem

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