Paul L. Caron

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More Reviews of Brian Tamanaha's Failing Law Schools

FailingMore Reviews of the forthcoming book by Brian Z. Tamanaha (Washington U.), Failing Law Schools (University of Chicago Press, 2012):

Chronicle of Higher Education, Law Professor Gives Law Schools a Failing Grade:

Law schools are bloated with too many underworked, overpaid professors whose salaries are supported by tuition increases that are making law school a losing bet for many students, a forthcoming book argues. ...

Some have praised the new book as a long-overdue wake-up call for law schools, while others have dismissed it as an ill-conceived formula to radically restructure an education system that is basically sound. ...

"Law schools at every level have been failing their ethical responsibilities while pointing the finger at others rather than themselves," Mr. Tamanaha writes. He wrote the book, he says, "to expose the disconnect between the cost of a legal education and the economic return it brings" and to find ways to fix the problem. Annual tuition has climbed to $50,000 at a half-dozen law schools, and, adding in living expenses, a law degree can cost $200,000, he writes. Meanwhile, the median starting salary of 2010 law graduates in private practice was less than $63,000, too little to manage debts that average around $100,000, he says.Meanwhile, many graduates are struggling to find work in "the worst job market in decades." ... "Law schools are thriving, kept afloat by students making poor judgments to attend, while the federal government obligingly supplies the money to support their folly," he writes.

Legal academics who reviewed "Failing Law Schools" reacted with mixed responses.

Mr. Tamanaha's book "should shake up legal academia," says Paul F. Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado and author of a blog called Inside the Law School Scam. "The critique he puts forward is really quite devastating," Mr. Campos said in an interview. "Legal academics are going to have to pull their heads out of the sand and recognize that we are all part of a model that doesn't work anymore."

Paul S. Berman, dean of law at George Washington University, says there is some truth to Mr. Tamanaha's arguments about the economic consequences of attending law school, particularly when students attend expensive, low-ranked schools in weak job markets. But he says Mr. Tamanaha exaggerates the extent of the problem, in part by failing to adequately consider the flexibility that federal income-based loan-repayment plans offer students. "Too much of the debate has focused on employment nine months after graduation," he says, arguing that if a law degree bumps up a graduate's income by $20,000 a year, the cost of earning the degree will be paid off over the course of a career.

Michael A. Olivas, a professor of law at the University of Houston and a past president of the Association of American Law Schools, says relaxing accreditation standards to allow more-diverse education models, which Mr. Tamanaha calls for, could lead law schools in the direction of for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, which critics contend shortchange students. As Mr. Olivas puts it, the result could be "the Phoenix-ation of law schools, churning students through, having a contingent and transient faculty, and none of the institutional investment in the broad roles of legal education." ...

Mr. Tamanaha argues that law professors are, by and large, underworked and overpaid. Citing recent studies, he says that law professors at elite law schools today teach courses worth about eight credits a year, compared with 15 credits for most of the 20th century. That trend is due largely, he says, to recruiting wars for top professors who would rather spend their time researching than teaching. Meanwhile, salaries have skyrocketed, with senior professors at elite schools earning more than $300,000 a year. Law students have shouldered the burden of much of the added cost through escalating tuition, Mr. Tamanaha writes.

And in a section that is sure to get some law professors' blood boiling, he takes on tenure, which he calls "costly and inflexible for schools—a lifetime marriage with a professor with almost no possibility of a divorce (except paying a ransom to purchase their departure)." 

Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, CHE Write-up on Tamanaha's Forthcoming Book on Law Schools:

If there's one theme that runs through his book it is that we need more *kinds* of law schools out there, that the "Chicago model" or the "Harvard model" shouldn't be the only one. And that will require the ABA to loosen up some of its accreditation requirements. Given the neoliberal paradigm in which we live, the only 'solutions' are going to come through the marketplace--no one can just mandate that faculty teach more and write less. Some institution has to show that there's an actual market for a cheaper law degree delivered by faculty who emphasize teaching over research.

A lot of the book is clearly a fair description of the current state of legal education in America, and a useful compendium of data. ... Although he gives sustained attention to the perverse influence of the U.S. News rankings, in some ways he still understates their impact. For example, he notes, correctly, that schools have been expanding their faculties, but notes that this is unlikely to improve academic reputation as measured by U.S. News. But that's not the issue:  the issue is that, all else being equal, the U.S. News rank of a law school is a function of per capita expenditures, and almost nothing else. The most profligate spender per capita is the "best" law school--that's why Yale always tops Harvard. While many of the trends in legal education are just part of broader trends in higher education over the last generation (as he sometimes notes), there's no doubt that the U.S. News "incentives" have pushed law schools further in the wrong directions.

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I tend to think there isn't much wrong with what is taught in law schools but there is something wrong with its being taught in law schools. So inefficient. What would be the obstacle to a college student majoring in law and reading law for two years, followed by a postgraduate year getting clinical experience? As for graduate school? That's where you then get your MBA or your CPA or your legal specialty!

Posted by: Susan Leboff | Jun 15, 2012 4:59:55 AM

Law Schools and lawyers are doing just fine. Tamanaha is really bending over backward to twist the data.

Lawyers still make more than just about everyone other than doctors, and their unemployment rates are still much lower than most other professions.

You can see the data from the BLS here:

Tamanaha focuses on starting salaries, not median salaries. Starting salaries are always lower than mid-career salaries. The median salary for all lawyers is $115,000 per year. This is more than enough to pay off law school debt and have plenty left over in savings. And that figure includes folks who went to low ranked as well as elite law schools, folks who are in house or work for the government or in small firms as well as the folks at the big firms. And it's more than the median law professor makes.

As for the top of the profession--Tamanaha notes that professors at Harvard and Yale can make $300K+ per year. The equivalent in law practice--partners at Wachtell or Sullivan & Cromwell--make $3,000,0000 to $5,000,0000 per year.

Do they work 10 times as hard as law professors? There are only 24 hours in the day, so it would seem unlikely. Most professors at the top schools are putting in a solid 60 to 70 hour work week. Perhaps a few "slackers" are only working 50 hours a week, but no law firm partner is working 500 hours per week (24 X 7 = 168). Granted their jobs may be more stressful and less pleasant, but lets compare apples to apples--the top law professors to the top lawyers, the median to the median, the bottom to the bottom, career peak to career peak.

You've got to wonder what it is that would drive Tamanaha to paint such a negative and completely one-sided picture of law schools, particularly lower ranked schools (he started at St. John's). Anyone care to speculate?

Posted by: anon | May 10, 2012 6:21:44 PM