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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tamanaha: The Visible Deterioration of Law School Quality

Balkinization:  The Visible Deterioration of Law School Quality, by Brian Tamanaha (Washington U.):

A red flag is signaling the potential deterioration of quality at a significant number of law schools. ... Rapidly rising acceptance rates provide ample reason to worry. A decade ago, for the entering class of 2003, only 4 law schools accepted 50% or more of their applicants (the highest at 55.4%). ... The most worrisome aspect of this deterioration is that a truly severe crunch is set to hit law schools this coming year: the number of applicants for entry in 2013 will be around 55,000, substantially down from 68,000 applicants for the class of 2012. It is likely that more than 100 law schools nationwide will accept 50% or more of their applicants (20 schools accepted between 45% and 49% in 2012), and perhaps several dozen law schools will accept two-thirds or more of their applicants. ...

Over two dozen law schools have seen painful declines in selectivity in the past decade. For example, New England School of Law accepted 37.2% of applicants in 2003, compared to 89% in 2012. (John O’Brien, the dean of NESL, who reportedly earns in excess of $800,000 annually, is the immediate past Chair of the ABA Section on Legal Education.) In the same ten year period, Suffolk went from 40.2% to 74%; John Marshall (Chicago) from 35.9% to 63%; Thomas Jefferson from 38.7% to 73%, and so on.

Acceptance rate is a measure of selectivity (although it can be artificially manipulated) because the deeper a law school digs into the applications pile, the lower the caliber of students it lets in, at least by LSAT/GPA measures. A number of law schools appear headed toward near open admissions for the upcoming entering class.

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Yes, but the crisis is also forcing many law schools to improve their offerings and relate better to the outside world. Professor Tamanaha is sort of like Cassandra, who kept telling everyone Troy was going to fall. She was right, but how much satisfaction was there in that, and wasn't it the people who tried to make things better that we remember?

Posted by: michael livingston | Mar 14, 2013 2:22:46 AM

This isn't a decline in the quality of the education.

It's a decline in the average abilities of the students.

There's a difference.

Posted by: Anon | Mar 14, 2013 5:13:04 AM

You're right. The quality of the education hasn't changed - - - it has always been questionable at best being more in the nature of a liberal arts programs than one that teaches the law and practical lawyering skills. A law school degree is little more than a rite of passage to a good paying job where the skill set necessary to succeed is learned on the job. So, when firms aren't hiring, or when law school output exceeds demand, of course apps will be down and "selectivity" will will go down the drain. You're also right that the average quality of the student is and will be down raising yet another round of semi-ethical questions. Want to bet that bell-type grading will remain the same resulting in good old grade inflation? I will take that bet. Will firms hire lesser average quality applicants in a constricted job market? I think not. So, once again, the schools are opening the door to persons who shouldn't get in, who will have limited job prospects and who will have invested big bucks or carry high debt. Is that ethical or just a business reality to keep the doors open with the same pay scales etc.? Sort of like banks lending on no-income verification or no-doc loans, isn't it? Obvious to me that we are only in the 3rd inning of structural change coming to the law school space. Greed is still blinding reality. The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round . . .

Posted by: Jay | Mar 14, 2013 6:23:44 AM


I guess you don't see the irony in your own statement about "who we remember"--"we remember" Cassandra, of course, not the naysayers who foolishly dismissed her.

Since I began writing critical posts about legal education, starting in 2006, you have consistently denied, disagreed with, and criticized my positions, and questioned my motives.

For example, when I wrote in Fall of 2011 about the "Coming Crunch for Law Schools," Ted Seto wrote a post on TaxProf explaining why I was all wrong. In the comments to my response to Seto's post, you wrote "I think there is a very effective retort to this by Prof. Ted Seto a couple of posts down." That's just one example (a mild one), which bears directly on the immediate "Deterioration" blog post.

For you to now say that "Tamanaha is right, but so what, he is not being constructive," is a laugh. Had more legal educators paid attention years ago things might not be quite as bad as they will turn out to be for many law schools.

Frankly, I don't care about who "we remember." ("We" will all be dead.) What I care about is reforms that reduce the cost of legal education. And my goal in writing these posts is to get information to public policy makers--particularly on the need to change the federal loan program. I hope these blog posts will be picked up and spread. Judging from requests I get from outsiders, I can say that it's working, at least somewhat, so I will persist. You will of course continue to dismiss everything I write.


Our quality is contingent upon the quality of the students we enroll.


Posted by: Brian Tamanaha | Mar 14, 2013 7:19:51 AM

“Yes, but the crisis is also forcing many law schools to improve their offerings and relate better to the outside world”

The record suggests otherwise, even on this site. The link below from this site is attached to a letter that is suggesting allowing students to enter law school before graduation from college and to shorten the formal education in law school from three to two years.

Rather than “improve their offerings”, it seems that the inclination is to degrade them.

Posted by: Allan Yackey | Mar 14, 2013 8:06:29 AM

I've said it before and I'll say it again, bar passage rates three years from now will be very, very interesting. I think we'll see a dip unless school offer more, or push more students into, classes that act as bar prep. If a law school is out of the top 25(30, 40?), I think it should drop some of the extra "law &" courses in favor of advanced topic courses or clinics that teach the staples.

Posted by: HTA | Mar 14, 2013 8:43:16 AM

I am constantly amazed by these discussions. Otherwise staunch conservatives want the ABA or the AALS to intervene in the legal education marketplace and shut down some of these schools or force limitations on enrollment. Where is the conservative faith in the free market? Won't the invisible hand of the market, through the ruination of several thousand law school consumers and a few dozen law schools and faculties, magically cause a realignment of supply and demand, along with proper pricing? With or without changes in the student loan system?

Posted by: Publius Novus | Mar 14, 2013 10:05:48 AM

Such debates among lawprofs over the future of legal education are fascinating, but on present terms are doomed to be inconclusive. But there may be a way to steer the debate toward a more productive course.

Congress should enact a nationwide law abolishing all tenure and other privileges currently held by lawprofs. That would free up lawprofs to go wrestle in the marketplace on the same terms the rest of us dumb proles must deal with every day.

Let the best lawprof win! Even better, sell the cable TV rights. It could rival UFC.

Posted by: Jake | Mar 14, 2013 6:20:31 PM

I can't say for anyone else, but at Rutgers we have had practice-oriented courses for more than twenty years, and continue to start new ones. I don't question the motives of Profs. Tamanaha, Campos, or others who write jeremiads about the future of legal education. I just think that they have outlived their usefulness, and are now becoming a convenient rationalization for people in the bar and elsewhere who simply want law students to be more profitable in the short-term--the same kind of "market-oriented" logic that nearly destroyed Wall Street and, if it is allowed to proceed, will do the same to legal education, as well.

Posted by: michael livingston | Mar 15, 2013 1:30:10 AM


"the same kind of "market-oriented" logic that nearly destroyed Wall Street..."

Well, thank goodness dozens and dozens (if not well over a hundred) *law* schools did not engage in systematic deception (for decades) regarding student outcomes in order to enrich themselves.

Yes, law schools exist so far above the morality of the market.

(That sound you hear is the readership of this blog vomiting - copiously - over your blatant hypocrisy).

It isn't as though over *50%* of the last 40 years' worth of law grads have quit the profession they went deeply into debt to enter, right?

(Might want to bother to take 5 minutes and take a look at BLS and ABA statistics)

The law schools have sh*t-stained hands and have absolutely no moral or ethical authority to impugn others - being utterly, utterly corrupted themselves.

And Rutgers?

Here is Rutgers...

ML - legal education *is already destroyed* - by people such as yourself and others at Rutgers.

The sooner you and your institution are shut down, the better for the profession.

Posted by: cas127 | Mar 16, 2013 12:18:44 PM