Is It Time to Start Shutting Down Law Schools?

No one wants to go to law school, yet new ones keep popping up

A view of the Claire T. Carney Library at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus on April 26, 2013, in Dartmouth, Mass.

A view of the Claire T. Carney Library at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus on April 26, 2013, in Dartmouth, Mass.

Photographer: Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

This month, the American Bar Association provisionally accredited a new law school at Concordia University. More than 200 law schools are accredited in the U.S. An analysis of data from the ABA itself raises the question whether that list should be getting any longer. 

Law schools exist for a lot of reasons, but a pretty important one is to prepare people to be lawyers. By that standard, a large handful of institutions seem to be failing. Last year, 10 law schools were unable to place more than 30 percent of their graduating class in permanent jobs that required passing the bar, according to ABA data. Those job numbers don't include positions that schools fund for their graduates or people who say they are starting their own practice.

At the University of Massachusetts School of Law, the American school with the worst job outcomes by this measure, just 22 percent of people who graduated in 2014 got those types of law jobs. 

“We are a work in progress, and we need to improve our bar-pass rate and improve our employment, and I am not embarrassed about that,” says Mary Lu Bilek, the dean of U-Mass Law. Forty-two of the 60 U-Mass Law students who took the bar in February or July 2013 passed the test. The school counted 81 graduates in 2014. Bilek notes that the school's employment numbers have improved in recent years and says she doesn’t think it’s fair to discount people who have opted to do things with their J.D. besides become lawyers.

“The traditional elite jobs aren’t the jobs that our students generally want,” she says. “There’s not room for another law school that wants to have students who want to do that, because there aren’t enough jobs for that.”

Years of a disappointing job market for lawyers have dramatically reduced the number of people interested in getting a law degree. According to the Law School Admission Council, just under 53,000 people are expected to apply to law schools by the beginning of the 2015 academic year, down from more than 100,000 in 2004.

Instead of making more things that fewer and fewer people want to pay for, one thought would be to eliminate some of those things. Are there law schools that should disappear? “Maybe. But how is that going to happen?" asks Al Brophy, a law professor at UNC. "Will it happen because places say voluntarily, ‘hey, we aren’t making money, so we should shut down?’” 

Schools will not volunteer for their own demise, Brophy says, partly because so many people—alumni, faculty, staff—have a strong interest in keeping the end at bay. “It is going to take a lot to have schools shut down. What I think we are going to find is that they are going to be able to operate on shoestring budgets.”

Bilek, the U-Mass law dean, says she will continue to focus on preparing students for the careers they want, even if they stray outside the standard path for lawyers. 

“I don’t want law schools to get away with pretending students can get jobs that they can’t get,” she says. She also doesn’t want the only measure of a school’s success to be the number of people it places in traditional law firms.

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