Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NY Times Op-Ed: Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs

New York Times op-ed:   Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs, by Steven J. Harper (Adjunct Professor, Northwestern; author, The Lawyer Bubble):

Ten months after graduation, only 60 percent of the law school class of 2014 had found full-time long-term jobs that required them to pass the bar exam. ...

Amazingly (and perversely), law schools have been able to continue to raise tuition while producing nearly twice as many graduates as the job market has been able to absorb. How is this possible? Why hasn’t the market corrected itself? The answer is that, for a given school, the availability of federal loans for law students has no connection to their poor post-graduation employment outcomes.

Students now amass law school loans averaging $127,000 for private schools and $88,000 for public ones. Since 2006 alone, law student debt has surged at inflation-adjusted rates of 25 percent for private schools and 34 percent for public schools.

In May 2014, the ABA created a task force to tackle this problem. According to its recent report, 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their total revenues from tuition. The average for all law schools is 69 percent. So law schools have a powerful incentive to maintain or increase enrollment, even if the employment outcomes are dismal for their graduates, especially at marginal schools.

The underlying difficulty is that once students pay their tuition bills, law schools have no responsibility for the debt their students have taken on. In other words, law schools whose graduates have the greatest difficulty finding jobs that require bar passage are operating without financial accountability and free of the constraints that characterize a functioning market. The current subsidy system is keeping some schools in business. But the long-term price for students and taxpayers is steep and increasing.

Paradoxically, the task force chairman was Dennis W. Archer, the former mayor of Detroit, who is also head of the national policy board of Infilaw, a private equity-owned consortium of three for-profit law schools — Arizona Summit, Charlotte and Florida Coastal. These schools are examples of the larger problem. Most Infilaw 2014 graduates didn’t find jobs that required their expensive degrees. Excluding positions funded by the law school, only 39.9 percent of Arizona Summit graduates found full-time jobs lasting at least a year and requiring bar passage. Florida Coastal’s rate was 34.5 percent. At Charlotte, it was 34.1 percent. ...

The task force, having dodged the issues that should have been the focus of its work, offered four suggestions: law schools should offer students better debt counseling; the Department of Education should develop “plain English” disclosure information about student loans; the A.B.A. should collect and disseminate information about how law schools spend their money; and the A.B.A. should encourage law schools to experiment on curriculums and programs.

None of those will make a difference. The crisis in legal education is real. Magical thinking and superficial rhetoric about declining enrollments, better debt counseling for students, and law schools’ experimenting with curriculum changes will not create more jobs. ...

Until student loans bear a rational relationship to individual law school outcomes, law schools will exploit their lack of accountability, the legal education market will remain dysfunctional, and equilibrium between supply and demand will remain elusive.

Legal Education | Permalink


Maybe the failure of law school is due to an improper metric for success. Why do we care so much about whether a law degree is required in the post law school job? My accounting program didn't measure its success based on the number of graduates who had an "accounting degree required" job but, rather, the quality of the program's instruction and the job prospects generally following graduation. If drama programs were valued based on a similar metric they would immediately cease to exist (I am not aware of any acting jobs that require a drama degree)? Shouldn't the metric be whether the graduate's lifetime employment prospects improved based on law school rather than short-term and narrowly defined employment statistics?

Posted by: John Treu | Aug 27, 2015 12:22:38 PM

Just more evidence the nyt is out to destroy the law schools. Perhaps every student could borrow another $500 to fund a marketing campaign to correct this injustice.

Posted by: Jojo | Aug 25, 2015 4:28:26 PM

Depressing that so many NYT commenters to Harper's article presume that this is all the fault of federal student loans, unaware that the accredited law schools jointly own their very own private lender and that GradPLUS loans really only came about at the tail end of the great law school tuition increase of the last 25 years or so. In fact, using the S&M *logic* of dismissing the years 2008-present because they mess up the thesis, we can say that GradPLUS have no effect on tuition, since they were only invented in 2006 or 2007.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Aug 25, 2015 3:35:22 PM