In “Broadway Danny Rose,” Woody Allen plays a theatrical agent forever looking on the bright side of his clients’ sorry careers. Don’t worry, he tells a washed-up lounge singer, “you’re the kinda guy that will always make a beautiful dollar in this business.”

For the past generation or so, Danny Rose’s optimismalso applied to anyone with a law degree. Lawyering might be disappointingly tedious, but at least it was remunerative enough to justify investing thousands of dollars in tuition. Heck, a law degree even opened doors in business and journalism.

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.

"Failing Law Schools" by Brian Z. Tamanaha (Univ. Of Chicago)

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.

Some law schools have actually faked admissions data to boost their rankings. The ABA recently imposed a $250,000 fine on the University of Illinois College of Law for reporting six years’ worth of inflated test scores and grades through 2011. Villanova has been censured by the ABA, though not fined.

A degree from Harvard or Yale, expensive though it may be, is still a ticket to lucrative employment. The problem is that the vast majority of students attend the vast majority of other law schools. Of the 201 ABA-accredited schools, only 12 reported that 80 percent of their 2011 graduates had landed full-time, long-term legal jobs, according to the Wall Street Journal. At almost two dozen less-prestigious schools, fewer than 40 percent of graduates had secured such jobs.

“Many law professors at many law schools across the country are selling a degree to their students that they would not recommend to people close to them,” Tamanaha writes. He also accuses them of lying about it: Some schools have been caught luring students with inflated post-graduation employment statistics.

If you think those claims sting, consider Tamanaha’s argument that law school effectively transfers money from students to relatively well-to-do professors, via student-loan debt — much of which is ultimately guaranteed by federal taxpayers who are generally not as well-off as the typical law professor.

Law school faculties are also bastions of liberal politics, and this irony is not lost on Tamanaha, who accuses the professoriate of not only enriching itself but also erecting de facto barriers to upward social mobility and true public-service law practice, all in the name of “academic freedom” and other abstractions.

Tamanaha argues that most law schools should emphasize lower-cost practical training, perhaps in fewer than the three years of study that are standard now. The resulting lawyers would serve the mundane but vital needs of ordinary people, a surprisingly large number of whom cannot afford representation even though they are not indigent. It would be an honorable calling and a decent living.

Tamanaha’s message — that law schools fail to fulfill this social purpose and that their failure is due to their selfishness and myopia — may not go over well in faculty lounges. But it is an important one nonetheless.

Charles Lane is a Washington Post editorial writer.


By Brian Z. Tamanaha

Univ. of Chicago. 235 pp. $25