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 percent 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.
The mismatch between law school’s promised benefits and its actual costs is the subject of no fewer than 12 pending lawsuits by unhappy graduates — and of Brian Z. Tamanaha’s remarkable new book, “Failing Law Schools.”
Tamanaha’s critique amounts to what lawyers call a “statement against interest.” A legal academic, he has nothing to gain by making it. But, like a defendant’s admissions of wrongdoing, Tamanaha’s arguments gain credibility not only because they reflect first-hand knowledge but also because they are not self-serving.
In part, the declining fortunes of newly minted JDs reflect the generally sluggish U.S. economy. But, as Tamanaha argues, lower demand for lawyers at big corporate firms — the ones that pay the most — probably reflects permanent structural shifts in the market for legal services.
The real issue is that a high-paying job has become the only kind a law grad can afford to accept. Why? As Tamanaha explains, law schools have spent the past quarter-century jacking up their tuition, from an average of $2,400 per year at public institutions in 1987 to $18,500 in 2009; the corresponding figures at private law schools are $8,900 and $35,750. These increases far outstripped inflation. No wonder 90 percent of law students borrow money that in many cases can be repaid only by working in corporate law or the equivalent.
And why have law schools raised tuition? Because accreditation by the guild-like American Bar Association hinges on expensive inputs such as big libraries and high faculty salaries. The ABA accreditors, drawn from the ranks of legal academia, favor research as well, which means that law schools must not only pay their professors plenty but limit the amount of time they spend teaching.
Pernicious, too, is the influence of rankings by U.S. News & World Report, which are crucial to attracting tuition-paying students — and which depend heavily on schools’ reputations among faculty members. Unsurprisingly, schools boost their reputations by hiring star professors and giving them plenty of time to write rather than teach, thus exacerbating the high personnel costs that drive tuition higher.