The expansion “does not mean that we are compelled to have 2,000 students,” says AU law spokeswoman Franki Fitterer. “At present time we are not planning to increase the JD program.”
Law students can borrow today — often with federally guaranteed loans — the full cost of tuition and expenses, and worry later about repaying what could total $237,000 for a UC-Irvine-level education.
For years, the return on investment made sense, as a law degree from a respected but not stellar school seemed to promise a long, fairly lucrative career, with more modest loans paid off in a 10-year span. But things changed as tuitions rose sharply and employment and compensation lagged. Federal tuition-repayment plans adjusted for low-earning lawyers now stretch to 25 years. If the loan is not paid off at the 25-year mark, the balance is forgiven, and the taxpayers eat the loss.
“I’m not sure how well-thought-out a lot of decisions [to invest in law school] are, in all candor,” says Mark Medice, national program director for Peer Monitor, a Thomson Reuters unit that tracks hiring and compensation data at large law firms, which traditionally have offered the highest-paying jobs to new lawyers. The market for new lawyers is so weak, says Medice, who himself has a JD and an MBA, that the return on investment is questionable for those at all but the most elite law schools. “If you have to pay $100,000 to do it, is it worth it?” he wonders. “Arguably, no.”
Besides, most law schools offer such a broad overview that legal education is “generic” and lacks utility, Medice continues. While most law schools now claim some sort of clinical or practical training, the broader trends may demand more fundamental reform.
Perhaps the structure of the entire system needs to change, with number of JDs graduating each year declining drastically. Medice envisions a new model, built around year-long, hyper-specific skills — such as discovery, regulatory matters and litigation support — that would quickly and relatively cheaply train students for the kinds of legal jobs that are available.
Though down-market compared with the Harvard Law world depicted in the 1973movie “Paper Chase,” this trade-school model “could really benefit the industry in a cost-effective way,” Medice says.