FORTUNE — Law school has long been a cozy perch for full-time professors. Faculty get to avoid the hurly-burly of legal practice, earn six-figure salaries, and get holidays and summers off to boot.
But, members of the legal academy, just like other Americans facing wobbly job security, are facing upheaval. With the legal job market foundering, fewer students are willing to take on the significant cost of a juris doctorate, and the waterfall of tuition dollars is slowing.
Law school deans are pondering structural changes, including lopping off the third year of law school and shrinking class sizes to adjust to the dwindling student population. All of these choices mean smaller budgets. One immediate fix has been to let go support staff and some part-time professors.
But with signs mounting that the law school predicament is not a blip, administrators are looking to address their biggest fixed cost — the full-time faculty. Professor earnings can hit pretty healthy levels. Rutgers-Newark pays a median $186,000 for a full-time law professor, the University of Iowa pays a median salary of $184,800, and University of California-Hastings law professors earn a median $187,221, according to a 2012-13 salary survey by the Society of American Law Teachers.
While salaries and secure employment are not inextricably linked, they are related. With tenure comes the security of consistent paychecks, regular raises, and no abrupt layoffs — and most universities bestow tenure, or near-guaranteed employment, to guard against firing teachers for expressing controversial or unpopular views. But decades ago, the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, took it a step further by tying accreditation with tenure protection for most full-time professors. But last month, amid complaints from graduates who cannot find sufficient work, the professional body decided to float two proposals that would sever this link.
“Some people say that protecting academic freedom does not require tenure,” says Barry Currier, the ABA managing director of accreditation and legal education, “and others say it does. Even now, law schools do not always provide tenure tracks for legal writing and clinical instructors.”
For the next few months, law professors, administrators, and the public can weigh in on revising the standard. One version would allow schools to adopt their own policies to protect academic freedom while maintaining a “competent” full-time faculty. An alternative proposal allows schools to offer a less strict version of traditional academic tenure to full-timers.
“Changes are long overdue,” says Paul Caron, a Pepperdine School of Law professor who writes at TaxBlog.com. “It seems odd that an accreditation agency only has one model for hiring at all 200 law schools.”
Eight years ago, the organization that represents more than 150 law school administrators began pushing publicly to ease accreditation requirements like strict tenure rules. The American Law Deans Association wrote a 2006 letter to the U.S. Department of Education criticizing the tenure requirement as stepping on their authority and flexibility.
Faculty members have argued that tenure assures professors that they cannot be fired without cause, and that a law school has to justify salary decreases with proof of a financial emergency.
“Whether a professor has tenure is not directly linked to a professor’s salary,” says Jackie Gardina, a law professor at Vermont Law School and co-president of the Society of American Law Teachers. “In the current climate, several law schools have cut salaries as cost-saving measures, and tenured professors are not protected from those cuts.”
Even so, tenure is not likely to be tossed out wholesale, particularly for law schools that want to attract, and keep, academic stars.
“Tenure has long been a point of contention,” says James Moliterno, law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, and author of The American Legal Profession in Crisis. “The crack in tenure means many law schools will feel empowered to change the nature of the faculty,” he says. “But it will depend on the school. Some schools have a large percentage of clinicians who often do not get tenure,” referring to professors who teach how the law applies to clients.
The disparities, Moliterno says, stem from mistakes that go “as far back as the late 1800s, when legal education — unlike medical education, which decided its job was to create doctors — decided its job was to create law professors,” driving a wedge between legal education and practice.
Tenure or not, Kent Syverud, dean of Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, is candid about the underlying problem. He recently told the ABA’s task force on the future of legal education that “law professors and law deans are paid too much,” and advised that “The whole problem of costs probably would go away tomorrow if our salaries were halved.”
To be sure, no law school deans have stepped forward to give back any of their compensation. But, if they did, they would be negotiating downwards from $294,100, the median law school dean’s salary, according to the most recent salary survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA).
“The rise in faculty salaries is dwarfed by the gargantuan inflation on the dean’s side,” says Pepperdine’s Caron. “The job of dean used to be to oversee the faculty with a slight pump up in salary, but now it’s a corporate mindset.” And deans are rewarded with university president-level compensation, topped by the more than $867,000 in salary and benefits paid last year to John F. O’Brien of the New England Law School, according to a report by The Boston Globe this year.
But changes to faculty tenure — and compensation — are inevitable as law school tuition costs barrel ahead. According to nonprofit group Law School Transparency, private law school tuition is 2.5 times what it was in 1985 and 5.3 times as much over the same period at public law schools.
“We have to make law school economically feasible,” says Moliterno. “The academic world is one of the last to adjust to market forces.”