In Failing Law Schools, for one critical reason I argue that, despite creating an excellent law school, UC Irvine went wrong: it is now among the most expensive law schools in the country (2012: $47,000 resident, $53,000 non-resident). When you add estimated annual living expenses of about $20,000, students will pay $200,000 for an Irvine law degree, and the average debt of the class of 2015 will exceed $100,000.
Students with debt that large are compelled by financial necessity to pursue corporate law jobs. ... Irvine law professors can saturate the atmosphere and curriculum with public service—it doesn’t matter. Irvine students will be forced to work in corporate law—and the many students who don’t land these positions will struggle under a huge debt. That is the reality of it. The “public service” goal was doomed, I argue in the book, by Dean Chemerinsky’s determination to create a "top 20" law school right out of the box. To achieve this goal, he recruited law professors from top law schools, who come at a high price.
An op-ed in the LA Times penned by Dean Chemerinsky in 2010 explains Irvine's high salary scale:
Over the last few weeks, I have negotiated salaries with superb professors we are attempting to recruit who are currently teaching at Harvard, Northwestern and Yale. The University of California must match their current salaries or they will not come. As much as I love living in Southern California, I could not have afforded to leave Duke University if it meant taking a substantial pay cut.
If you are recruiting against top law schools, you pay top dollar for professors. Publicly available UC salary records reveal that Irvine law professors are very well compensated (two received gross compensation topping $300,000 in 2011). Under the current economic model of law schools, I wrote in the book, “affordability and elite status are mutually exclusive.”
Understandably upset by my critical comments about UCI, Dean Chemerinsky has made two recent rebuttals: You Get What You Pay For in Legal Education and Law Prof’s Ideal, Affordable Law School Not Possible. In neither response does he contest my assertion that UCI grads (class of 2015) will be forced by their debt burden to seek corporate law jobs regardless of a desire they might have to work in public service.
He insists that tuition must be in the $50,000 range if UCI is to land in the top 20. On that point, he and I agree. What Dean Chemerinsky does not explain, however, is why it was necessary to create a “top 20” law school. ... I am skeptical of his suggestion that there were only two options: create a “top 20” law school or a “fourth tier” law school. One way to have kept costs down with no significant loss in faculty talent would have been to recruit top professors from excellent law schools with a lower pay scale (Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, North Carolina, William & Mary, etc.) rather than from Harvard, Northwestern and Yale. But he went for the prestige.
[T]here is something vaguely discomfiting about a law school that urges its students to engage in public service—which requires a significant financial sacrifice on their part—while professors are paid their market value; high professor pay adds to the debt burden, making public service work that much harder for graduates to manage. Although Irvine professors are fully entitled to earn market value, what results is in tension with their advocacy of public service.