Perhaps the only players in the legal world getting a harsher strafing these days than law firms are law schools. The biggest complaints are 1) financial: that they unfairly entice students into their folds on promises of big payday legal jobs that most will never have a shot at and that the law schools do so at tuition rates that impose mortgage-sized debt (without the house) that will be hard to pay off even if their graduates do get one of those plum jobs; and 2) professional: that law schools are academic ivory towers that don’t prepare their graduates with either the professional or personal skills needed for a successful and happy career.
These issues have provided the normally buttoned-up legal world with some major drama, like hunger striking law students, a Congressional inquiry, lawsuits against law schools across the country for, among other things, fraud, false employment data and unfairly low grades, predictions of law school closings and deans resigning in disgrace. And also a runaway YouTube sensation.
The financial data is fairly straight forward. Law school tuition has risen dramatically faster than inflation while at the same time high-paying (as well as other) legal jobs are less available, a situation against which even the ABA warns potential law students. The employment rate for new graduates last year was 87.6%, the lowest it has been since 1996, according to the NALP, with only 68.4% having jobs that required passing a bar exam. In order to afford paying back the $100,000 that most students leave law school carrying, their salary should be over $65,000, which only 40% of new graduates who report on their salaries (a population which is therefore likely to overstate average income) make.
When even the ABA is reporting that compared to technical schools, law school is not a good financial bet, it’s no surprise that the number of applications to law school are down.
The drumbeat about the lack of professional skills of most young lawyers and the distress many are suffering is harder to verify. Many clients today refuse to pay for first and second-year lawyers, which perhaps attests to the first. And even before the recession fully one-third of 3rd year lawyers said they wanted to leave the profession, not just their job, which speaks to the second.
The pundits are all over these issues, with the biggest growth in this industry probably being among angry law graduate bloggers. Law schools are portrayed as primarily pursuing their own profit motives on a model based on a symbiotic relationship with big law firms: it is the firms’ outsized salaries that provide the carrot that attracts all those willing to pay such high tuition, and in return law schools gratefully feed a few of the best performers into the ever-open maul of big firms.
What are law schools doing about this public thrashing? Well, there’s the raising-the-grades-instantly gambit to try to make their graduates look more attractive. And some law schools are canceling those evening classes. And there’s always the cook-the-numbers approach to getting a better (or better-looking) quality of study body. But none of these schools is porposing anything that changes the old fundamentals.
The suggestions being made to reform law schools run from relatively minor tweaks like changing some of the curricula to eliminating law schools altogether. One author goes so far as to argue that ideas hatched in law school by the legal intelligentsia are "catastrophically bad for America." Some think law schools should offer money-back guarantees to their graduates who can’t get a debt-paying job. Steven Harper, a respected ex-big-law-partner, professor at Northwestern Law School and active commentator, wants colleges and law schools to stem the flow of law school applicants by disclosing what the reality of law practice in a big firm will be: indentured drudgery and unhappiness.
There are lots of calls for more transparency. Forbes magazine has announced that it will start rating law schools based on their graduates’ legal job results, if that information can be culled from the non-legal jobs and jobs offered by the law school to its graduates that skew the results. U.S. News & World Report and the ABA both have insisted that future rankings will reflect more accurate information.
But there is this nagging feeling that law schools are possibly taking the hit for an entire marketplace shift that has made the old pyramid up-and-out business model a thing of the past, a model which firms and clients are still grappling to replace, while in the meantime the lives of countless professionals and their careers are being disrupted.
Law graduates with ever more expensive degrees are entering a marketplace with fewer jobs, where average pay isn’t keeping up with the tuition escalations. And still those being kicked out of law school are trying to claw their way back.
Who’s to blame for this dislocation? Being able to identify the guilty ones would clear a lot of consciences.
Wouldn’t it be better for the whole circle of players to cooperate in reinventing the career trajectory of those who want to love the law? But are having a hard time feeling it these days.