In a book about his championship Lakers teams, noted basketball guru (and University of Kentucky alum) Pat Riley explained the difficulty in winning back-to-back titles by referencing something he termed the “Disease of More.” Sports writers have been using the term ever since, but the idea applies equally well to fields other than sports. At its core, it is the idea that success leads to failure: collective success leads individuals to want “more” on an individual level and to therefore sacrifice less in the pursuit of collective success. In terms of Pat Riley’s basketball team, “more” meant more playing time and more salary. In terms of the legal academy from the mid-eighties up until recent times, “more” meant more faculty lines and more tuition. The increases in tuition in turn led to the current “crisis in legal education” caused by a precipitous drop in law school applications as heavy debt loads have begun to render legal practice less profitable.
Obviously, the legal education crisis has a profound impact on academic law libraries, which for the most part derive their budgets directly from their law schools. In the long term, however, the crisis’s negative consequences will also be felt by law libraries outside academia as well. Because of the high cost of law school, the legal profession threatens to become more class-based, with only students from upper-middle class backgrounds able to afford the requisite education. Already, people with fewer means struggle to afford legal representation to such an extent that it has caused states to look at alternatives to fully-licensed attorneys, as well as spawned an Access to Justice Movement (see for example CALI’s latest initiative). As anyone who provides reference services to the public can attest, a lack of affordable representation often forces people to attempt to represent themselves. This strains already poorly-funded public libraries. Furthermore, a class-based profession would necessarily be a smaller profession, and so the number or sizes of private law libraries may also be reduced. Thus, it is not just academic librarians that need to be concerned about the crisis.
Luckily for law libraries, the legal academy finally seems aware of its disease and is beginning to take steps to ameliorate the crisis. It has even been pointed out how academic libraries can help with (and possibly benefit from) the fix. That said, treating symptoms does not remove the underlying cause of the disease: the rising costs. The only true cure is to reduce the cost of law school, but this cure carries negative impacts for libraries, as it is emotionally easier for the dean to cut the law library’s material budget as opposed to someone’s job. Add to this the fact that legal vendors periodically also suffer from the “disease of more” and so raise prices, and it is easy to see a point in the near future where libraries are forced to make tough decisions about subscriptions. Typically law firms (the ones who can afford it, anyway) subscribe to either Westlaw or Lexis. Will academic law libraries be able to justify continuing to pay costs for both? How does the recent LLJ article about evidence that the majority of practicing lawyers use neither regularly affect our decisions? These are tough questions without certain answers. What is certain, however, is that combating the “disease of more” will require sacrifices from individual institutions (whether law schools, libraries, or both) in order to advance collective success.