The Problem With Law School

Law schools have lied and cheated to compete for new students and higher rankings. They need a makeover: the product is not attractive to prospective students, employers or clients.
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The November 29 New York Times editorial by Case Western law school dean Lawrence E. Mitchell ("Law School Is Worth the Money") reminds us why people relentlessly criticize law schools. The piece misleads readers and shamelessly disregards why critics stand up for students. The "relentless attacks," Dean Mitchell says, require "a bit of perspective." He is absolutely right.

Law schools have lied and cheated to compete for new students and higher rankings. Schools publish misleading salaries and employment rates, despite possessing internal reports that eviscerate the advertised statistics. Until recently even diligent prospective students found themselves facing an information asymmetry. These actions are easy fodder for reform advocates because deceptive behavior is so widespread. In response the American Bar Association -- the accreditor of U.S. law schools -- has strengthened disclosure requirements, ramped up enforcement mechanisms and soon will audit data to start holding law schools accountable.

Put mildly, American law schools have deserved the "relentless attacks" -- usually in tone, always in substance.

Dean Mitchell wants to take the long view. Forget that when law school started for this May's graduating class, ABA-approved schools enrolled 52,500 students, or that from 2007 through 2011 an average of just 27,200 graduates had full-time legal jobs within nine months of graduation. Overlook that tuition continues to increase, despite years of warnings that tuition hikes at rates far exceeding inflation are unsustainable and unfair.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the crunch for lawyer jobs continues to worsen. It projects 21,880 new lawyer jobs per year through 2020, in part because the legal profession is undergoing substantial structural change. Globalization, technological improvements, and a growing market for non-lawyer legal services contribute to a weakened entry-level market for fresh graduates. Nevertheless, the law school crisis is not solely a function of oversupply.

The long view, as advocated by Dean Mitchell, instructs prospective students to consider the investment over a 40- to 50-year period. Unfortunately, statistical support for this view is lacking. He focuses on the average lawyer, which ignores the thousands of graduates each year who never practice law. The truth is that we know very little about the long-term prospects of law school graduates. Graduates may have wonderful analytical tools from legal education, but debt is more predictable than how they will use their heightened faculties.

What we do know is that prospective law students are reticent about investing their savings or graduating with six figures of debt because of the short-term economic return. Within nine months of graduation, just 21.6 percent of 2011 law school graduates reported making at least $60,000. Educators need to more acutely appreciate their obligation to every enrollee, and not just focus on the warm success stories.

If a student debt-finances the entire cost of their legal education at Dean Mitchell's school today, she will owe a cool quarter of a million dollars by the time her first payment is due. Forty-six-point-three percent of the school's class of 2011 had full-time professional jobs (legal or not) lasting at least one year; 20 percent of the class made at least $70,000. Not even 10 percent of the class made more than the average amount borrowed ($98,900), let alone the actual debt figures after interest accumulates during school and opportunity costs. As these facts seep into the marketplace, it is no wonder Case Western's enrollment is down 35 percent over the last two years.

The law, conceived broadly, plays an important role in our democratic society. Law school stakeholders like Dean Mitchell, and his many vocal supporters on the deans-only listserv, jeopardize the important function that legal education should continue to play in the United States. To do so, law schools need a makeover: the product is not attractive to prospective students, employers or clients.

Disbelief from legal educators is expected, as well as in their best interest. Passion from educators about the work they do is desirable, but disbelief about the structural issues facing law schools holds reform back immensely. Clinging to the traditional model of delivering legal education is a mistake that precludes schools from getting ahead of the curve. The damage, then, will be far greater than the damage caused by those shedding light on how bad things have become at American law schools.

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