In Broadway Danny Rose, Woody Allen plays a theatrical agent forever looking on the bright side of his clients’ sorry careers. Don’t worry, he tells a washed-up lounge singer, “you’re the kinda guy that will always make a beautiful dollar in this business.”
For the past generation or so, Danny Rose’s optimism also applied to anyone with a law degree. Lawyering might be disappointingly tedious, but at least it was remunerative enough to justify investing thousands of dollars in tuition. Heck, a law degree even opened doors in business and journalism.
Thousands of liberal arts BAs grew up on those assumptions. “Everyone is pre-law,” journalist Michael Kinsley quipped, “until the day they enter medical school.” A JD himself, Kinsley knew whereof he spoke.
Alas, the economic benefits of a legal education are no longer certain. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, only 55% of the 44,000-member law school class of 2011 landed a legal job within nine months of graduation. Twelve percent had found other professional employment. Meanwhile, the average law grad carried $100,000 in student-loan debt.
Far from guaranteeing a “beautiful dollar,” law school looks increasingly like a bad deal — even, for some, a rip-off. ...
Of the 201 ABA-accredited schools, only 12 reported that 80 percent of their 2011 graduates had landed full-time, long-term legal jobs, according to the Wall Street Journal. At almost two dozen less-prestigious schools, fewer than 40 percent of graduates had secured such jobs. “Many law professors at many law schools across the country are selling a degree to their students that they would not recommend to people close to them,” Tamanaha writes. He also accuses them of lying about it: Some schools have been caught luring students with inflated post-graduation employment statistics.
Law school faculties are also bastions of liberal politics, and this irony is not lost on Tamanaha, who accuses the professoriate of not only enriching itself but also erecting de facto barriers to upward social mobility and true public-service law practice, all in the name of “academic freedom” and other abstractions.
Tamanaha argues that most law schools should emphasize lower-cost practical training, perhaps in fewer than the three years of study that are standard now. The resulting lawyers would serve the mundane but vital needs of ordinary people, a surprisingly large number of whom cannot afford representation even though they are not indigent. It would be an honorable calling and a decent living.
Tamanaha’s message -- that law schools fail to fulfill this social purpose and that their failure is due to their selfishness and myopia -- may not go over well in faculty lounges. But it is an important one nonetheless.