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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tamanaha: Wake Up, Law Professors, to the Failure of the Law School Business Model

Brian Tamanaha (Washington University), Wake Up, Fellow Law Professors, to the Casualties of Our Enterprise:

It’s grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.

Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don’t dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.

Their complaint is that non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods. Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can’t get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.

And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for thirty years. ...

[L]aw schools must shrink the number of graduates, and must hold the line on tuition increases. (The fact that many students get scholarships is no answer because it simply means that some students, those paying full fare—often the students with the worst prospects—are subsidizing others.) This will be painful: smaller raises (perhaps even salary reductions), smaller administrations, smaller faculties, more teaching, less money for research, travel, and conferences.

The longer law schools delay in undertaking these measures, the more casualties there will be. At some point, law professors can no longer disclaim responsibility for the harmful consequences of this enterprise.

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I agree with the general sentiment, but what gives with the "non-elite" bullshit? There's no real difference in the model used by elite or nonelite schools, nor is there even a working definition of one or the other. Brian Tamanaha himself spent most of his career at a "nonelite" school and recently moved to an elite or what is more accurately called a wannabe elite school. Did he suddenly become more effective, or the model that his school uses suddenly become more relevant?

Posted by: mike livingston | Jun 16, 2010 3:13:24 AM

Why would law schools need to change? Due to the terrible economy law school applications are through the roof and even the worst schools reject 6 applicants for every one they accept.

Posted by: anon | Jun 16, 2010 6:54:49 AM

What hokum!

As long as there are people with a BA and no immediate job prospects in the field they are truly interested in, there will be law schools to help them pass the time until the economy improves.

The only way to put any real economic heat on the law schools or, for that matter, the organized bar is to simply open the practice of law to anyone who can pass a state bar exam - with or without a law degree.

Any citizen in a democracy with the ability to read critically, apply the rules of elementary formal logic and write coherently should have no trouble passing a bar exam and excelling at the practice of law after a period of structured study with or without the tutelage of a practicing lawyer.

Posted by: John | Jun 17, 2010 8:02:10 AM

I thought Tamanaha wrote provocatively and thoughtfully. I attempted a response on my blog about labor and employment issues, Minding the Workplace:

David Yamada

Posted by: David Yamada | Jun 20, 2010 9:49:14 PM

mike -- the operational definition of "elite" in this case is "law school that has actual placement of its graduates at salaries that justify the expense for those in the bottom half of the class." That is the only definition that seems to really apply.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Jul 8, 2010 5:07:11 AM