Law professor Brian Tamanaha (recently of St. John’s University in New York; now at Washington University in St. Louis) challenged law professors at regional law schools in a blog post to consider the ethical implications of attracting thousands of students to pursue an expensive legal education at a time when the job market cannot provide them with meaningful employment. Citing to angry, despairing posts on blogs by law students and recently graduated lawyers, he writes:
Their complaint is that non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods. Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can’t get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.
I’ve looked at some of these blogs, and agree with Tamanaha:
It’s grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.
Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don’t dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.
Tamanaha’s post hits home for me. My employer, Suffolk University Law School, is a known quantity in Boston and New England generally, but it places modestly in national rankings. Historically, the school’s graduates have found places in smaller law firms and government service (such as district attorney’s offices and legislative positions), with some managing to obtain jobs in large law firms. However, severe restructuring within the legal profession and the effects of the recession have had a devastating impact on job prospects for our graduates.
As I see it, there are several important questions to consider:
Cutting the net costs of legal education
Law schools have been raising tuition at rates far outpacing inflation, not to mention the ability of their graduates to comfortably repay student loans. Today, the real cost of a legal education must be measured in student loan debt and anticipated earnings. Even before the recession, law schools falling outside the top rank could not reasonably assure the bulk of their graduates that lucrative jobs awaited them. Controlling tuition and increasing grant and scholarship assistance are crucial toward capping student indebtedness.
Reconnecting supply and demand
If you’re not a lawyer (and perhaps even if you are one), think fast: A personal or business crisis suddenly emerges, and you need legal advice. How do you get it?
For many folks, it would involve a mad rush of phone calls, e-mails, and Internet searches, with very uneven results.
Fact is, even though there are lots of underemployed, able lawyers out there, most of us do not have ready access to quality, affordable legal advice to guide us through our personal and business affairs. From the standpoint of access and price, even the oft-criticized HMO model for healthcare looks a heckuva lot better than any delivery system for legal services.
In sum, we need to develop a business model for providing legal assistance that bridges this perverse gap between supply and demand. In doing so, the public will be served better by the legal profession, and more talented lawyers will be employed.
Too many lawyers
Even if we do develop this business model, it’s likely that our law schools will still be producing an oversupply of lawyers. When law school tuition was a fraction of its current level and students graduated with minimal debt, perhaps that wasn’t a big disaster. But what do you do when you graduate with $100,000 in student loans and limited job prospects?
Law schools are regarded as money makers. They take in lots of students, provide instruction in mostly large, impersonal classes, and charge a heap of money for the privilege. They are loathe to cut entering classes because each student represents, generally speaking, well over $100,000 in tuition payments. Reduce the new class by 10 students, and that’s $1 million in “lost” income. For law schools unwilling or unable to engage in effective fundraising from alums and other supporters, it’s a lot easier simply to load up on new students.
The need for legally literate professionals
Even if we don’t need a lot more lawyers, we do need people in business, government, and the non-profit sector who understand legal issues. The law permeates so many aspects of everyday life, commerce, and activity. Law schools should play a greater role in educating people about the law and legal systems, without requiring them to earn a law degree. Law schools that successfully develop such offerings will not only create new revenue streams, but also play an important role in bringing legal literacy to the broader public.
These are among the ethical questions that law schools should face, and very few are doing so right now. Tamanaha suggests that addressing these concerns effectively may involve faculty doing more with less, and that’s a real possibility. I do know that schools choosing to grapple with the situation now rather than later will be in better shape in the long run, in terms of both opportunities for their students and graduates and overall institutional health. The ones that ignore it may find themselves out of business, and perhaps deservedly so.
An even bigger question
The problems facing law graduates are not occurring in a vacuum. In the U.S., and around the world, we are seeing an emerging jobs crisis for young people. Levels of unemployment for high school and college graduates are spiking upward. Vocations once regarded as safe havens (such as law) are no longer so. I understand if the specter of unemployed lawyers is not the stuff of public sympathy, but we all should be deeply concerned that our labor markets are not providing gainful employment to their latest entrants.
Jan. 2011 update — David Segal of the New York Times penned this long feature, “Is Law School a Losing Game?,” examining the state of the legal job market, the cost of a legal education, and law student debt.