Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Uneasiness about the state of legal education has been around for some time, but in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008, uneasiness ripened into a conviction that something was terribly wrong as law school applications declined, thousands of lawyers lost their jobs, employers complained that law school graduates had not been trained to practice law, and law school graduates complained that they had been led into debt by false promises of employment and high salaries. And while all this was happening, law schools continued to raise tuition, take in more and more students, and construct elaborate new facilities.
That at least is the story told in a book to be published later this year, Failing Law Schools, by Brian Tamanaha. Tamanaha is a law professor, a former law school dean, a prolific legal theorist and, by his own account, a malefactor who in the past did some of the things he now criticizes. Having seen the light, he feels compelled to spread and document the bad news. ... He catalogs a large number of failings on the part of law schools, but his emphasis is less on particular bad actors (although he names more than a few) than on the structural conditions — conditions put in place by no one, but affecting everyone — that generate and drive their behavior.
Two such conditions can be colloquially named “the ABA made me do it” and “the rankings made me do it.” ...
Tamanaha does not spare the internal practices of law schools and is particularly distressed about the amount of debt incurred by those least able to get out from under it — graduates of lower-ranked schools. He also takes aim at the claim of law professors that their high salaries and low teaching loads (relative to other academics) are justified by the revenue they forgo when they enter the academy. No, he replies. Not only is “our pay far better than that of other professors,” not only do we have lifetime security and hours of work that are “whatever we want them to be,” but “our quality of life is far better than that of lawyers and we make more money than most lawyers.”
Will these fortunate conditions persist? Can law schools keep doing what they’re doing? Not according to the statistics Tamanaha marshals, statistics that show, among other things, that while law schools produce annually 45,000 new graduates, only 25,000 openings for lawyers are projected “each year through 2018.” ...
[T]he solution? In a word, differentiation. Don’t let the ABA and U.S. News call the tune. Instead, take a good look at the educational landscape, at the market, at the costs, at the demographics and come up with a flexible system that matches law school graduates to needs. ...
Will it happen? Tamanaha is not optimistic, and he cites the (to him) discouraging example of the new law school at the University of California at Irvine, which, he says, chose “elite status” over “affordability,” chose to enter the “ranking sweepstakes” rather than opting for a “different design.” Still, he finds hope in a number of public law schools that do “charge tuition well below $20,000.” He’s just not generally hopeful.
(Hat Tip: Bill Turnier.)