The Case Against Law School

At more than $50,000 a year, "law school tuition is simply too damn high." Photograph by Robb Kendrick/Getty Images

The legal education industry has hit a wall. The U.S. has an oversupply of attorneys. Law schools keep pumping out more. Graduates have huge debts and sparse job prospects.

“Law schools need to take immediate action to confront today’s crisis,” Paul Caron, a thoughtful and prolific professor at the University of Cincinnati, recently explained:

“The current model—convincing 45,000 people each year to assume six-figure debt loads to chase 20,000 legal jobs (most of which do not pay enough to service the debt)—is simply unsustainable. Market and political forces are gathering steam.”

Caron, who specializes in tax law and knows his figures, suggests that the legal professoriate look to Jimmy McMillan for guidance. When he ran for governor of New York in 2010, the eccentric McMillan drove around my Brooklyn neighborhood in a car with a loudspeaker on its roof, shouting his memorable campaign slogan: “The rent is TOO damn high.”

At more than $50,000 a year, “law school tuition is simply too damn high,” Caron argues. “Administrators and faculty need to ruthlessly examine law school budgets and cut areas that are not essential to the school’s mission. Law school is twice as expensive as it was 20 years ago [in inflation-adjusted dollars], yet no one would argue that legal education is twice as good today.”

Steven Harper, a recently retired partner at the Chicago corporate law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, elaborates on the case against law school in his newly published book, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis. Harper has much to say about challenges facing large law firms, as I noted here, but some of his most alarming material concerns legal education. Consider these statistics Harper has helpfully compiled from a variety of reliable sources:

• Nine months after graduation, only half the members of the class of 2011 had long-term, full-time work requiring a law degree.

• Law school applications and enrollments have fallen in the past couple of years, but the absolute numbers in the pipeline are still absurdly high. For the class entering last fall, there were 68,000 applications for 50,000 law school seats, and when those students graduate, they’ll compete for 25,000 jobs. (These figures are actually more sanguine than Caron’s, but they make the exact same point.)

• Today we have one lawyer for every 265 Americans, more than twice the per-capita rate in 1970.

• Median lawyer salaries, while still attractive compared with those of other job categories, are falling. Starting lawyers who graduated in the class of 2011 had a median starting salary of $60,000, down 17 percent from 2009. With crushing debt burdens, $60,000 doesn’t seem so luxurious.

• American Bar Association research shows that only about 44 percent of lawyers practicing in large law firms for a decade or more would recommend a legal career to young people. To be fair, that figure jumps to 68 percent when public-sector lawyers (such as prosecutors, public defenders, judges, regulators) are polled.

The upshot: The invisible hand will force some law schools of lesser repute to shrink or close, further diminishing the value of their graduates’ degrees. Even more prestigious schools will have to trim class size.

And here’s what you won’t read on those shiny law school websites: If a college graduate cannot gain admission to a top law school—and then finish in the top half of her class—the legal employment marketplace looks bleak for as far as the eye can see. Consider another line of work.

Conflict of interest disclosure: I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1987. The law library in Langdell Hall gave me a stomach ache. My disaffection had nothing to do with job prospects, however. In the late 1980s, there were plenty of well-paid openings. My choice of journalism over law has worked out just fine, thanks, but given the overall state of the media business, I wouldn’t recommend that young folks today follow my example.

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