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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Comments

The market for legal services is a competitive market, as it should be. The point of our legal education system should be to provide the highest quality attorneys we can. Limiting graduates to a small number to make the market better for the attorneys would do what restrictions like that always do - limit the quality of service provided to the consumer. Since the service provided is protection of rights and the consumer is everyone, this means to do so would cheapen the worth of everything attorneys should hold dear, and just for the sake of a few bucks.

There are societal assumptions about the profession of law that are the root of the problem, and the expectation of a well-paying job merely by graduating leads way too many people to go to law school who have no real interest in the law. The data criticized here is simply misleading to those who wish to be misled. They've already been misled this way at the undergrad level, or many of them would not be applying to law school to begin with. Burn me once, shame on you...

The bottom line is: if you work hard at a law school, get good grades, work the internships and connections at both the law school and your undergrad school, you get a good job no matter what school you graduate from. It may not be the six-figure Armani suit job society has promised, it may not be in the most glamorous of locations, but those students who expect this without putting in the work required to get there deserve to be disappointed.

Prof. Tamanaha is right. The comment in response from "anonymous" is wrong.

As I've said through two editions of Planet Law School now (1998, 2003), the law schools are of the profs, by the profs, and for the profs...not for the students. Anonymous says legal education is a competitive market. Nonsense. Virtually all states require a J.D. from an ABA-accredited school as the ticket to sit for the bar exam. And the ABA committee that has always dominated accreditation is and has always been controlled by present and former law school deans, present and former law school profs, and by professors and other administrators from universities that have law schools. The ABA was founded largely to drive out of business the stand-alone law schools that offered part-time evening programs for immigrants and the children of immigrants, which the legal Establishment thought besmirched the dignity of the supposedly noble legal profession. Very few freestanding schools survived that campaign, and most still have low status.

For law schools at universities, the parent institution routinely skims off between 10 and 40 percent of what the law students pay in tuition and fees. Further, law profs are paid far more than the average university prof. They say that's necessary because otherwise the profs would leave the ivory tower to practice law. Yet, most law profs are not competent to practice law; they merely serve as commentators or supposedly expert legal consultants. Now profs at other schools within the universities are demanding higher pay too; hence the exorbitant increases in tuition.

A series of reports, for nearly 100 years now, have taken so-called legal education to task for turning out graduates who are not competent to practice law. Imagine had that been the case regarding, say, medical education, or engineering. But in the law, despite the most recent criticism (the McCrate Report, of 1992), it's still business as usual.

The law schools deliberately mislead students as to how many graduates are employed at all. Many of those who are employed are not employed in the Law. Many who are supposedly employed in the Law are actually just paid part-time research assistants at their legal alma mater, the jobs provided so the law schools can say those students are employed in the Law.

The law schools also mislead prospective students as to what salaries are out there for them. Most salary surveys are based on data reported by the grads. And the grads know their legal alma mater will have more standing if the numbers are exaggerated. So they exaggerate. No one---not the AALS, the ABA, the NALP---audits the numbers. Statistically, even if they were truthful, the reported "average" is worthless, as it excludes information as to the median and standard deviation.

Legal "education" is the same at all law schols, again thanks to the ABA. But students have no idea of the quality of that education. True, states release information as to the bar-pass rate. Ironically, that's supposedly a measure of the quality of the school. But the profs at virtually any law school will be the first to tell you that they do not "teach to the bar." When it comes to knowing the things that any lawyer is expected to know---and to be tested on in the bar exam---they say "You can take a bar review course for that." So they play both ends against the middle. It's interesting, that after paying, say, $100,000 in tuition, students then have to pay, say, $3,000 for a bar-cram course to learn the things that they supposedly were taught in law school. (Five of the six subjects on the MBE, for example, are first-year subjects.)

It might not be so bad if the law schools actually helped students learn the law--I mean the law itself, as well as the nuts and bolts of the practice of law. (Again, compare/contrast medical school.) Then students could at least have a decent chance of making it as sole practioners fresh out of law school. But as it is, with the hide-the-ball pedagogical malpractice of law school and virtually zero attention to what the REAL world of the Law involves, graduates are walking cases of legal malpractice waiting to happen.

Legal education is a thoroughgoing scam. ---And I say that as someone who loves practicing Law, and dearly wishes legal education were worthy of that name.

Atticus Falcon (I do not know why, in the Preview, it showed me as another "Anonymous." I've signed my name in case it posts that way. Anyone who's interested can contact me at atticusfalcon@gmail.com.