Getting into law school is neither easy nor cheap. No, not even with third and fourth tier schools vying for students. Most schools require LSAT scores (requiring fees (both test fees and test preparation fees, should one elect), preparation, and time) and applications (requiring time and fees), and some require in-person interviews (requiring time, preparation and travel (and more money)). And that’s before one is able to be called a law school student.
Experience has taught me that law school attracts four types of people: (1) those seeking big firm life (think elite firms, six-figure starting salaries, inroads to politics and power); (2) those seeking to change the world (think not-for-profit organizations, public interest, and defenders of the underprivileged); (3) those seeking non-legal or quasi-legal professions (think academia, agency (sport or other), think tanks, politics); and, (4) those seeking something other than the three mentioned above.
James Rouse, founder of the Rouse Company, is known for telling anyone without a clue as to what to do in life to attend law school. After all, law school develops and sharpens analytical skills, teaches one to question to find solutions, and hones communication skills (both written and oral). Yes, Mr. Rouse attended law school, but he never practiced law.
“Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs,” erroneously assumes (1) that people attending law school want a legal job upon graduation; (2) that law school graduates are qualified–and able–to undertake legal jobs; and, (3) all available entry level legal jobs are being filled upon graduation. Indeed, graduates may not have passed the bar exam on the first or, even, second, attempt, barring them from many legal jobs. Alternatively, personal circumstances may dictate that graduates who successfully have passed the bar are not able to work in a legal job. (I’ve meet several women in Japan who recently have passed bar exams, but find themselves unable to practice law abroad.) And there are always legal jobs that are difficult to fill, typically those offering low pay, few benefits and long hours.
Aside from relying upon questionable statistics to set forth his position, what is most disturbing to me about Steven J. Harper’s piece is that he overlooks the basic premise that attending law school is a choice. Graduating from law school does not guarantee a job–it never has, it never will. If one does not know this before applying to a law school, perhaps he or she has no business becoming a law school student. And he or she certainly will have a difficult time in the real-world legal field. Indeed, I would not want to work with someone incapable of conducting the most rudimentary of cost-benefit analysis.
I took out student loans for my legal education. I read the disclaimers. I understood the small print. And I signed on the dotted lines. I understand the burden of repaying law school debt better than most, as I am still doing so–many, many years post-graduation. Do I regret the path I chose? No. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. And while periods of practicing law were difficult and other moments troubling, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive–worth every penny of my 30-year education mortgage.
I entered into law school knowing that hard work and determination only go so far and with the understanding that life is a crapshoot. To be certain, there were moments in my third year of school when I considered applying for jobs that would offer loan forgiveness. But that wasn’t the path for me. And while I didn’t know my path at the time, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Attending law school gave me credentials that gave me the freedom to take a gamble. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Successful career aside, I don’t believe that my education was worth the amount of tuition charged. And that, in my opinion, is the true starting point for discussing law school tuition reform.
* * *
RE:PRINT: The New York Times
Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs
By STEVEN J. HARPER AUG. 25, 2015
WILMETTE, Ill. — Ten months after graduation, only 60 percent of the law school class of 2014 had found full-time long-term jobs that required them to pass the bar exam.
Even that improvement over the class of 2013 (a 57 percent employment rate) came with three asterisks: Last year, the American Bar Association changed the job-reporting rules to give law schools an extra month for the class of 2014 to find jobs; graduates employed in law-school-funded positions count in the employment rate; and the number of jobs that require bar passage fell from 2013 to 2014.
Amazingly (and perversely), law schools have been able to continue to raise tuition while producing nearly twice as many graduates as the job market has been able to absorb. How is this possible? Why hasn’t the market corrected itself? The answer is that, for a given school, the availability of federal loans for law students has no connection to their poor post-graduation employment outcomes.
Students now amass law school loans averaging $127,000 for private schools and $88,000 for public ones. Since 2006 alone, law student debt has surged at inflation-adjusted rates of 25 percent for private schools and 34 percent for public schools.
In May 2014, the A.B.A. created a task force to tackle this problem. According to its recent report, 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their total revenues from tuition. The average for all law schools is 69 percent. So law schools have a powerful incentive to maintain or increase enrollment, even if the employment outcomes are dismal for their graduates, especially at marginal schools.
The underlying difficulty is that once students pay their tuition bills, law schools have no responsibility for the debt their students have taken on. In other words, law schools whose graduates have the greatest difficulty finding jobs that require bar passage are operating without financial accountability and free of the constraints that characterize a functioning market. The current subsidy system is keeping some schools in business. But the long-term price for students and taxpayers is steep and increasing.
Paradoxically, the task force chairman was Dennis W. Archer, the former mayor of Detroit, who is also head of the national policy board of Infilaw, a private equity-owned consortium of three for-profit law schools — Arizona Summit, Charlotte and Florida Coastal. These schools are examples of the larger problem. Most Infilaw 2014 graduates didn’t find jobs that required their expensive degrees. Excluding positions funded by the law school, only 39.9 percent of Arizona Summit graduates found full-time jobs lasting at least a year and requiring bar passage. Florida Coastal’s rate was 34.5 percent. At Charlotte, it was 34.1 percent.
Yet as the demand for new lawyers continued to languish from 2011 to 2014, the size of Infilaw’s graduating classes almost doubled, to 1,223. These schools are also among the leaders in creating law student debt. Arizona Summit’s 2014 graduates had average law school debt of $187,792. At Florida Coastal, the average was $162,785. Charlotte’s average was $140,528.
The task force report said that some witnesses proposed “capping law student loans, requiring law schools to have ‘skin in the game’ by being responsible for loan repayment in certain situations, and even scrapping the current federal student loan program altogether.” It characterized proponents of such measures as hoping “that a kind of fiscal tough love will force schools to become more financially responsible and reduce cost.”
But the task force argued that “there seems to be little need to impose the kind of tough love some want because the market is already doing it.”
Except that the market is doing no such thing. While enrollment did decline to about 38,000 last year from 52,000 in 2010, it has not been falling at the pace necessary to reach equilibrium in a stagnant legal job market. Too many incoming law school students still believe they will be among the lucky few who get decent jobs.
The task force, having dodged the issues that should have been the focus of its work, offered four suggestions: law schools should offer students better debt counseling; the Department of Education should develop “plain English” disclosure information about student loans; the A.B.A. should collect and disseminate information about how law schools spend their money; and the A.B.A. should encourage law schools to experiment on curriculums and programs.
None of those will make a difference. The crisis in legal education is real. Magical thinking and superficial rhetoric about declining enrollments, better debt counseling for students, and law schools’ experimenting with curriculum changes will not create more jobs.
The A.B.A. should treat the challenge seriously and begin to address it with serious solutions. So far, that has not happened. In fact, earlier this month, the A.B.A. House of Delegates missed an opportunity to address this issue by giving its rubber stamp of approval to the task force report.
Until student loans bear a rational relationship to individual law school outcomes, law schools will exploit their lack of accountability, the legal education market will remain dysfunctional, and equilibrium between supply and demand will remain elusive.
The A.B.A. calls itself “the national voice of the legal profession.” When it comes to the profession’s most urgent problem, it’s long past time to speak up.
Steven J. Harper, a former partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, is the author, most recently, of “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 25, 2015, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs.
* * *