It is a common refrain, these days, that something is terribly awry with law schools. Critics charge that tuition is too high and students are graduating with unmanageable debt. The job market has taken a nosedive, and many perfectly qualified lawyers are in jobs they could do just as well with a bachelor's degree -- if they are employed at all. And some law schools have been accused of deliberately deceiving applicants about the quality of their job prospects -- and U.S. News about the quality of their applicants.
One hears less about these issues from law professors, who have, as a rule, prospered under the current system -- to a completely unjustifiable degree, argues (law professor) Brian Tamanaha.
In his new book, Failing Law Schools (The University of Chicago Press), Tamanaha builds a detailed and thorough case to show that the present state of legal education is both unsustainable and highly unethical, and that legal educators themselves are largely to blame.
Inside Higher Ed spoke via e-mail with Tamanaha -- who is William Gardiner Hammond Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law -- about the issues discussed in his book.
Q: You note that Failing Law Schools was "difficult to write," and that much of its contents "might offend or irritate people [you] admire." What ultimately made you feel that you had to write it?
A: It became clear to me that the cost of a law degree is increasingly out of proportion to the economic opportunities obtained by many law graduates.
A few numbers will show the mismatch. Annual tuition at a dozen or so law schools exceeds $50,000, with many schools approaching that figure, bringing the out-of-pocket cost of a law degree (including expenses) to $200,000. Law graduate debt is high as a result. In 2010, the average debt of graduates from private law schools was about $106,000 — in 2011 it jumped up to $125,000 (not counting undergraduate debt). Meanwhile, job prospects for many law graduates are dismal. For the class of 2011, only 55 percent of graduates had obtained permanent full-time jobs as lawyers nine months after graduation. The median salary of law graduates that year was $60,000, which is not enough to manage the standard monthly payments on the average debt.
Law schools are producing streams of economic casualties. I wrote the book in the hope that shedding light on the situation will help prompt reform.
Q: Who -- or what -- is responsible for the rapid rise of law school tuition in recent years?
A: Law schools often blame rising tuition on rising costs — new buildings, new programs, high professor salaries, etc. This is looking at things the wrong way around. Law school tuition went up because tens of thousands of students have been willing and able to pay whatever law schools charged. Had tuition increases dampened demand, it would not have gone up so rapidly.
Students have been willing to attend because they believe that a law degree is a worthwhile investment, even at today’s high prices; law schools have encouraged this belief by publishing misleading employment statistics, claiming employment rates for recent graduates in the 90 percentile range, with triple-figure salaries, when the truth was much worse. Students have been able to pay these high prices because the federal loan program covers the entire cost of a legal education without limits and without any evaluation of whether the loans are likely to be repaid.
Q: If Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and other "überelite" law schools had "exercised greater restraint" over their tuition increases, you write, the price of "all other law schools would have remained lower as well." Obviously, that didn't happen. From an ethical standpoint, what should those institutions be doing now?
A: Elite law schools, along with most law schools, have been caught up in an intense competition over prestige and U.S. News ranking. To boost their reputation among academics, top law schools have substantially increased the size of their faculties, and have recruited star lateral hires by offering lower teaching loads and higher salaries. At top law schools, most professors teach around eight credits per year, and the salary of full professors is in the $300,000-plus range, with some earning above $400,000. Higher tuition paid for this.
Professors at top law schools should realize that the law school prestige race of the past two decades left every school in the same relative place, with no gain in standing. The top 14 ranked law schools in the very first U.S. News ranking are the same schools in the top 14 today.
Law professors across the country, at elite and non-elite law schools, should consider the harmful economic consequences to their students and to society of having erected an enormous economic barrier to access to the legal profession. Law schools can hold the line on tuition increases if they choose to do so, although that will require sacrifices on the part of legal educators. Elite law schools are especially important because they are the price leaders who set the market price for a law degree.
Q: What are some of the key ways in which "legal educators have utilized regulatory mechanisms ... to further their own interests"?
A: Legal educators have utilized the accreditation process to protect our interests, for example, by requiring tenure for the bulk of the faculty and by restricting teaching loads. Inspection teams that conduct reaccreditation visits are staffed by legal educators who have interpreted and applied the rules in ways that sometimes go beyond what the rules actually require, pressuring schools to improve the job security and working conditions of law professors.
Q: What actions can be taken by individual law professors concerned about the impact of skyrocketing tuition?
A: There is little any individual law professor can do to stem the rise of tuition. A professor who refuses a pay raise will merely see the forgone money spread around to less altruistic colleagues. To be effective, action must be taken collectively — the entire faculty (or at least the highest paid faculty) as a group must take less pay. That aside, perhaps the most an individual faculty member can do is not draw down on research funds and not travel to conferences, or at least be more frugal about work related expenditures.
Q; What are some of the ways in which you believe that many law schools mislead potential applicants? What could be done to change this?
A: At least two law schools, Illinois and Villanova, reported false LSAT/GPA medians to U.S. News for several years. Many law schools have boosted their employment rates using a variety of techniques, from counting any kind of job as “employed,” to putting unemployed graduates temporarily on the law school payroll. Law schools have posted misleading salary numbers for recent grads by carefully crafting categories (“full time private law firm”), without clearly disclosing that only a small percentage of graduates actually landed those jobs, and by reporting salary numbers taken from relatively few graduates. Using these techniques, law schools would advertise a median salary of, say, $145,000, when in truth only 20 percent of the class landed those types of jobs and less than half of the grads in these positions actually reported their salaries. A prospective student who took these numbers at face value would be fooled.
The ABA enacted new reporting rules a year ago that require law schools to provide more detailed employment information. But this has not solved the problem. Arizona State law school, for example, claimed a 98.2 percent employment rate in the most recent U.S. News ranking, although the dean later admitted , “we do not feel this percentage paints a fully accurate picture of the financial and employment difficulties our graduates face."
The only solution to this problem is for law schools to regain a sense of professional integrity and fair dealing. A lawsuit against Cooley Law School for its misleading employment statistics was dismissed last week; the judge ruled against the plaintiffs on the grounds that the employment numbers advertised by the law school are so “inconsistent, confusing, and inherently untrustworthy” that they could not reasonably be relied upon by prospective students. ”Caveat emptor” (buyer beware), the judge wrote. That is a sad statement about the diminished credibility of law schools.
Q: In what ways would you like to see legal education reformed -- and are any of these reforms realistic?
A: Under current accreditation standards, all law schools are set up like research universities. I propose stripping away all of the provisions in the accreditation standards that mandate the “academic model” of law school. This will allow for the accreditation of lower-cost law schools that focus on training lawyers, creating differentiation among law schools, allowing students to choose the type of legal education they want at a price they can afford.
My other main proposals involve changes to the federal loan program. "Gainful employment" standards, like those now applied to for-profit colleges, should be applied to law schools to retain eligibility for federal student loans. In addition, caps must be placed on federal loans, either by capping the total amount any individual student can borrow for law school, or by capping the total amount of federal loan money a school can receive in a given year.
These proposals are realistic in the sense that they can be implemented with a few simple changes, but legal educators will fight to preserve the status quo.
Fortunately, one force for reform is already having an effect. Owing to greater public awareness about the poor job prospects for law grads, the number of applicants to law school has declined about 25 percent since 2010. Law schools are struggling to meet their 2012 enrollment targets, and are offering scholarships deeper into the class. When every student gets a scholarship, that is a de facto tuition reduction, even if the list price remains unchanged. If the number of applicants continues to decline for a few more years, law schools will be forced to change how they operate, and some law schools will close.
Q: What steps should a would-be law student take to determine whether attending law school would be a reasonable choice?
A: It is not wise to attend law school today unless one wants to be a lawyer. Anyone considering law school should talk to a few lawyers and get a realistic sense of what the work is like.
When considering a particular law school, a prospective law student should find out what percentage of recent graduates at that school landed permanent full time jobs as lawyers. (The Law School Transparency website  provides this information.) At about one-third of law schools nationwide in 2011, fewer than half of the graduates obtained these jobs. A student has a coin-flip chance, or worse, of getting a lawyer job out of these schools. That is a poor risk to take for any student not on a hefty scholarship. (Students can bargain for higher scholarships.)
Finally, prospective students should calculate their expected debt upon graduation. To comfortably manage debt in excess of $100,000, a graduate must obtain a corporate law job. Only students at top law schools have a solid chance of landing these jobs. At lower-ranked law schools, almost no one lands these jobs. Public interest jobs are an attractive escape from debt owing to a government sponsored program that forgives the remaining loan balance after 10 years, but these jobs are as tough to obtain as corporate law jobs.
Prospective students considering law school today should be wary of taking on large debt and should think realistically (not optimistically) about the odds that they will do well.