“F*** greedy law schools” seems to be the phrase of the day. At least on the blogosphere.
A few weeks ago, David Segal had an excellent expose on the culture of greed that permeates the business of law school. He appropriately entitled his piece: “Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!” The NY Times followed up with a “Room for Debate” article entitled “The Case Against Law School” that included snippets from a broad group of debaters. And then, Above the Law’s, David Lat, followed up the Room for Debate piece with some thoughts on the debaters’ suggestions.
So I thought I would add to this ad nauseum discussion with my own perspective—that of someone with ten years of legal experience who is set to attend law school. I will give my thoughts on the current state of legal education and respond to the suggestions from the Room for Debate folks.
Somewhere along the line law schools moved from the commendable goal of education to a simple quest for profits. I don’t know when this trend started. And maybe it was always like that. But I do know that law schools are big business these days. As Segal noted, “from 1989 to 2009, when college tuition rose by 71 percent, law school tuition shot up 317 percent.”
If a third tier school like New York Law School charges almost $48,000 a year, then its official—we have a freaking problem.
It is not uncommon for law school students to accumulate over $200,000 in debt for law school. While the median salary for students entering the market at private firms is $104,000, the market for those jobs is slim. Most graduates find themselves in government or public service job—if they find employment at all—that pays a median salary of $52,000 or $42,900, respectively.
At jobs in that price range, it will take law school graduates decades to pay their debt, which is why law school debt is labeled “crushing” and “crippling” by some.
The problem is simple: We have too many law schools charging too much money for students to enter a too small a legal market.
Am I concerned about this trend considering I am starting law school this fall? Yes, yes, yes. I have one of the best scholarships a school can offer. Yet I worry whether there will be jobs available after school. I worry whether lawyers will take job offers and salaries usually reserved for paralegals and bring the whole level and prestige of attorneys down with them. Basically, I have a number of selfish worries that should accompany any law school student facing the worst job market and highest price tag for legal education in history.
But I’m going to law school, anyway. So maybe you don’t want to listen to a guy who thinks he can beat all the odds in a game set up to make him lose. Law school is becoming more and more like a Vegas casino game, complete with U.S. News rankings telling you to step right up and take your shot at a losing proposition.
Now on to the Room for Debate comments…
I found David Lat’s suggestion the most compelling. He suggested that law school be reduced to two years and then follow those two years with a paid apprenticeship. I guess the apprenticeship would take place of clinical studies that normally provide students with hands-on training in their second and third years. The benefit of an apprenticeship is two-fold. First, it would provide students with real world experience. Second, by removing a year of law school it would save students anywhere between $25,000 to $75,000.
Lat basically argued that the standard mode of legal education must be changed.
David Van Zandt, president of The New School, said the same thing. He noted that ABA rules require students to take a minimum of 80 credit hours of coursework, and until recently, they also required that the coursework take place over three separate calendar years. Van Zandt then issued the most honest statement of any of the debaters. He said:
The logic behind these policies is not entirely clear, and is a classic case of regulatory capture. The industry itself—in this case the legal education system—controls the regulatory process. Law schools and their faculties have a vested interest in requiring students to spend more time on campus and more money at their schools.
I couldn’t agree more, which is why George Leef’s suggestion that we allow anyone to take the bar has some appeal. He said:
The legal profession has long sought to turn itself into a cartel. Among its anti-competitive tactics is mandating that prospective lawyers go through a needlessly long and expensive period of education. The truth is that very little that a lawyer needs to know is learned in law school classrooms and that which is essential, particularly legal research and writing, could easily be learned elsewhere.
What an idea. If you’re diligent enough to study the law on your own and pass the bar then you’re in.
It was interesting to note the debaters tied to or employed by law schools were the most ardent supporters of the status quo, while guys like Leef, Lat and Van Zandt (none of whom are law professors) argue for broad reform.
For example, Kevin Noble Maillard, law professor at Syracuse University, argued that law school “is not a trade school” and it shouldn’t be measured solely by how well it prepares students to be lawyers. This is because law schools should “emphasize educated citizenship.”
Only a law professor would come up with this argument. It misses the point entirely. Law school students—at least the ones I know—attend school for two reasons: 1) they want to become attorneys; or 2) they don’t want to work yet. I have never met a student who desires to pay $40,000 a year to learn to become a more educated citizen.
Such a person doesn’t exist.
While Maillard misses the point, Linda Greene, law professor at the University of Wisconsin, disrespects every student who has run up $200,000 of crushing debt only to learn that they can’t find a job. In such cases, Professor Greene believes that law school still “provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the intersection of private and public power, to explore the rationale for the organization of human society and to participate more knowledgeably and effectively in every aspect of human endeavor.” She says the value of such an education is: “Priceless.”
Seriously. I’d like to see Professor Greene make this claim to the 2010 graduating class, many of whom are still not employed in a real lawyer job. They might disagree, and violently so, with her belief that law school is the place to run-up six figure debt while exploring the “rationale for the organization of human society.”
This is exactly why law school students are pissed off in the first place: because law schools feed them a line of BS every time they are pressed on why students are shelling out huge sums of money for crappy employment prospects, while law schools continue to see record breaking profits.
So what changes should happen? What changes need to happen?
While I think the best solution is the complete deregulation of the legal industry, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. So the idea of third-year apprenticeships would seem the best solution to offset the escalating costs of law school tuition.
And while I tend to blame law schools, I also think that students need to step up and educate themselves before making the fateful decision to attend law school. This should occur after they receive their LSAT scores, so they understand the range of options available to them. For example, a person with high scores will have an opportunity to attend a high ranked school, which comes with employment opportunities that dwarf, say, a school like Thomas Jefferson.
Law schools in return need to be honest about employment statistics and merit-based, GPA-tied scholarships. A graduate who works at a grocery store shouldn’t count towards a school’s employability statistics.
If law schools were honest and law school students were realistic, the New York Times wouldn’t publish a law school sucks article every other month and students wouldn’t start blogs dedicated to demonizing law schools.
Maybe that is the best we can hope for.