Paul L. Caron

Friday, February 24, 2012

National Jurist: The Law School System Is Broken

TamanahaA Broken System, National Jurist, Feb. 2012, at 18:

It's a troubling trend. The total amount of debt that has been used to pay for legal education has risen to $3.6 billion, up from less than $2 billion just ten years prior. And if the current trends continue, that figure could reach $7 billion by 2020.

It's not a problem that has gone unnoticed. Legal education observers are worried, recent graduates are frantic and law schools are looking at their options. ...

[T]here is no easy or simple answer to the problem. ... The reason for the debt is easier to understand: law school tuition continues to outpace inflation. It increased by 74% from 1998 to 2008.

Why does tuition continue to grow? Most agree it is related to the number of law professors walking around law school campuses nowadays. Faculty salaries make up a majority of a law school's budget. And law schools increased their faculty size by 40% from 1998 to 2008, according to a National Jurist report. That meant almost 5,000 law professors were added in 10 years, with the average student-to-faculty ratio dropping from 18.5-to-1 in 1998 to 14.9-to-1.

And why did law schools expand their faculties so rapidly? Law has become more complex and specialized. Law schools today offer far more course than ever before, and specializations. But critics point out that the race to do better in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings has also fueled the growth.

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Your argument ignores the most crucial part of a lawyer's career: the first few years. A graduate from Chicago will probably spend those years making an extremely high salary from a huge firm. A graduate from Chicago Kent will probably spend those years as a document review lawyer, if she gets a job in law at all. This is regardless of any difference in the quality or ethical integrity of the lawyer in question.

Posted by: Justin | Feb 28, 2012 9:21:12 AM

The article is simply wrong about law school budgets, at least at my school.

Research and clinical faculty salaries account for about a fifth -- far from a majority -- of our budget.

USNWR scholarships (so-called "merit" scholarships given in the hope of improving our USNWR ranking); university "overhead" (reallocation of law school tuition to the rest of the university); and administrative and library costs are EACH larger budget items than salaries for teaching and research.

Posted by: Law Prof | Feb 28, 2012 5:18:30 AM

What law?
Read the news.
The strong take and the weak are taken.
With the election of Obama, Chicago ethics have gone national.

Posted by: PacRim Jim | Feb 27, 2012 9:11:01 AM

I have been practicing law for 32 years. My experience is that nobody even knows where you attended law school once you are a year or two out of school. As your career progresses you either become known as a competent, ethical lawyer or you do not. The best solution for the ridiculous, greater than inflation increases in tuition is go back to allowing people to read for the law, avoid law school altogether, and take a rigorous bar exam or series of exams.

To those considering law school my best advice is to treat the avoidance of excessive debt as your first priority. The practice of law has changed and you will want to be able to go solo or start your own small firm at any time. You will not be able to do that if you are buried under a large debt load.

Posted by: Bill | Feb 27, 2012 4:22:26 AM

US News isn't forcing schools to hire more professors. Neither is the increased complexity of the study of law.

The article hits on part of the answer when it mentioned the reduction in applications this year, which people attribute in part to the steady drumbeat of "Being a lawyer sucks, there are no jobs" in the media. That will cause fewer people to choose the study of law.

But in terms of why students are price insensitive when choosing between schools, that's a different question. Students choose expensive schools with lower student/faculty ratios primarily because those are the schools where firms go to hire. Firms go to hire at schools with lower student/faculty ratios primarily because those are the schools with the best students. "Best" can be defined multiple ways, but the point is that the explosion in size of the legal academy is just an enormously expensive and wasteful signal.

Maybe if a lawyer's career outcomes were determined 100% by the quality of lawyer she was, and 0% by the name of the school she went to, schools could compete on price. Until then, I seriously doubt it.

Posted by: Justin | Feb 24, 2012 5:44:59 PM