Prospective students deserve straightforward law school data

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, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor. 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. They accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.

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.

And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for 30 years.

This dismal situation was not created by the current recession, which merely spread the pain up the chain into the lower reaches of elite schools. This has been going on for years.

The law graduates posting on these sites know the score. They know that law schools pad their employment figures. They know that the gaudy salary numbers advertised on the career services page are actually calculated based upon only about 25 percent of the graduating class. They know all this because they know of too many classmates who didn’t get jobs or who got low paying jobs. The numbers don’t jibe with their first hand knowledge.

They know the score now. But they didn’t know it when they first applied to law school. They bought into the numbers provided by law schools. The mission of these sites is to educate and to warn away the incoming crop of prospective law students — to save them from becoming victims of the law school scam.

Wait a minute, law professor’s protest.

Law professors are not scammers. We advance the rule of law and justice. We promote efficient legal institutions. We develop legal knowledge and knowledge about law for the good of society. We are the conscience of the legal profession.

The students made their choices. They should have done more research. They should have thought more carefully about the consequences of taking on so much debt. It was their foolish over-optimism to think they would place among the top 10 percent of the class and land the scarce corporate law jobs. Don’t blame us.

It is their dream to become a lawyer. We provide them with the opportunity, and what they make of it is up to them. Besides, a law degree is valuable even if you don’t get a job as a lawyer. It improves your reasoning ability. It opens all kinds of doors.

When annual tuition was $10,000 to $15,000, these rationalizations had enough truth, or at least plausibility, to hold up. When annual tuition reaches $30,000 to $40,000, however, it begins to sound hollow. Students at many law schools are putting out a huge amount of money for meager opportunities.

What can we do? As a start, we can provide prospective students with straightforward information about the employment numbers of recent graduates. It is open knowledge that many law schools present employment information in a misleading fashion, or don’t disclose it at all. This lack of candor on the part of law schools is itself a telling indication that there is something problematic about the product we are selling to prospective students.

More crucially, law schools must shrink the number of graduates, and must hold the line on tuition increases. This will be painful: smaller raises, smaller administrations, smaller faculties, more teaching, less money for research, travel and conferences.

The longer law schools delay in undertaking these measures, the more casualties there will be. At some point, law professors can no longer disclaim responsibility for the harmful consequences of this enterprise.

The negative consequences for individuals and for society of the extraordinary price of entry to the legal profession will become more apparent over time. And it all happened under our watch.

By Brian Tamanaha, professor at Washington University Law School in St. Louis

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