The law school viability debate continues to rage, with enough fingers to point in every possible direction. A recent study entitled “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” and dubbed by one commentator “the one paper every law professor and law school dean should read,” supports the law school view, decrying the “hue and cry… made by a small group of disgruntled law professors and a somewhat larger group of unemployed recent law school graduates… who have turned on their colleagues, their institutions and their own careers in order to push for the widespread shut down of dozens of law schools. The behavior of some of them borders on the pathological.” Authors Michael Simkovic and Frank Mcntyre “reject the claim that law degrees are priced above their value” and estimate that law school adds an average of $1 million to graduates’ lifetime earnings, a noble sum that quells all controversy. “Law schools are not, by a long shot, sinners in the recent events.”
Whoever may be the sinners, the statistics are not looking favorable for the law graduates. In 2012, after law schools graduated 46,000 new attorneys, only 10% of law schools (or 20 out of 200) had permanent full-time J.D.-required job placement rates exceeding 75% nine months past graduation, with the overall J.D. job placement average for all law schools being 56%–barely the majority of their graduates. And those who did get jobs saw their average starting salaries drop by about 20% from $72,000 in 2009 to $60,000 in 2012, according to the National Association of Law Placement.
And prospects aren’t getting any better, as recited on Susan Saltonstall Duncan’s blog. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the American Bar Association, jobs in Legal Sector Employment from 2010 – 2020 will leave 22,700 law graduates in the early years without full-time employment requiring a law degree, numbers that are further exacerbated by projected declining job creation over time. “According to the National Law Journal 250 survey, 2012 alone saw a decline of 4% of total lawyers, including 8.7% in total associates. New legal jobs decreased from 33% to 21% in just 2 years.”
In the meantime, the average law school tuition debt has increased 435% since 1985, with average debt of $150,000. With salaries down for those who can find a legal job, both those who can as well as those who can’t find legal jobs are unlikely to be able to repay that level of debt without a lot of pain.
In spite of declining employment and salaries and lower enrollment, law schools continue apace with tuition increases that outstrip inflation and all other industries.
Potential law students are taking note. Law schools are expecting this fall the smallest entering class of students since the 1970s. According to the Law School Admission Council, the number of applicants that applied this year was down 12.3% from 2012 and applications were down almost 18%. The drop means fewer student loans–which could dent law school coffers by almost $500 million, according to some calculations–and also a scramble for securing the best class admission stats.
Even the Ivy law schools are hurting, with Harvard Law School no exception. Applications there dropped 27% between 2009 and 2012, although they contend that that trend is coming to an end. A side effect of Harvard’s decline in applications is that the percentage of students admitted has gone up. Harvard’s acceptance rate was 11.2% in 2009. In 2012, it was 15.9%, an increase of 42%.
As to the $1 million average earnings figure that is the Simkovic/Mcntyre study’s key to law school value, given the extreme spread in lawyer incomes, with incomes bunching at one or the other end, any average is meaningless, as commentators have pointed out. One, Stephen Diamond, calculates the net lifetime premium to those in the middle to be closer to $330,000 over a 40-year career, or an average of $687 a month in added value, hardly the slam dunk in value that is implied.
Steve Harper, author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis, concludes from his review of the study what is “the most important point of all. Anyone desiring to become an attorney shouldn’t do it for the money… the Simkovic/Mcntyre study with its many questionable assumptions proves that for thousands of graduates every year, the money will never be there,” even as the federal government profits from the current high rate of law school loans. “Law schools like them, too,” he adds.
In contemplation of the law schools’ deteriorating situations, this year’s ABA annual meeting considered incremental steps rather than a sweeping overhaul, such as giving law schools a one-month reprieve on employment reporting and weakening teacher tenure requirements, but the 34-page task force report to the ABA’s Section on Legal Education, which oversees accreditation of 201 law schools, ended by pointing its own finger, scolding the media for undermining the legal profession.