June 16, 2010

BRIAN TAMANAHA: Wake Up, Fellow Law Professors, to the Casualties of Our Enterprise.

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.

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.

Just casualties of the recession? Or more signs of a bursting bubble? The only positive angle I can contribute is this: With a college degree now functioning, essentially, the way a high-school diploma used to, a law degree is the closest graduate equivalent to the traditional liberal-arts B.A. The biggest problem, though, is the staggering expense. Not all law schools are that expensive, but even state schools are pricey now, and for out-of-staters may cost as much as private schools. If I were looking at law school today I absolutely wouldn’t go into debt except for an absolute top school — like Yale, Stanford, Harvard. And even then I’d be wary. The debt is too enormous, and the prospects too uncertain — not only because of the economy, but because of the uncertain future even of big law firms.

Meanwhile, I have a structural solution: Make institutions of higher education partially liable when students are unable to pay student loans. A really strict system would make the school a co-signer, but making it even 5 or 10% liable for missed payments would really change the dynamic. Give schools some skin in the game. . . .

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