Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Costs and Risks of Going to Law School

The cost of law school today is very high.  A recent article in Washington Lawyer by Rick Schmitt explains that "[i]ncluding living expenses, the cost of law school now averages between $150,000 and $250,000, much of which is debt-financed. The average debt for students who graduated from a private law school in 2011 was $142,565 . . . ." And job prospects aren't good. That same article reports that for the class of 2011, only 55 percent of students had found full–time jobs as lawyers within nine months of graduation.  See also an informative 2011 piece in The New York Times entitled "Is Law School a Losing Game?"

Despite these daunting costs and prospects, Lawrence Mitchell, Dean of the Case Western Reserve law school argues in The New York Times that the focus on first jobs after graduating from law school is the wrong metric because law schools "educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years."  Although I see Dean Mitchell's point, prospective law students and lawyers have to pay the bills between now and that uncertain point in the future when the demand for lawyers is more in balance with the supply.

For the moment, it seems clear that law schools are minting new lawyers faster than the country needs them. According to a web site called Law School Transparency (LST), only 46.3% of Case Western Reserve's 2011 graduates found jobs that required a law degree while the cost of the degree was almost $246,000. The risk-reward ratio is sobering. Several interesting responses to Dean Mitchell's op-ed can be found here, including a letter from an Atlanta lawyer who reasonably forecasts that between 2010 and 2020 there will be five new law graduates for each new law job created.

LST is a nonprofit legal education policy organization dedicated to improving consumer information and to reforming the traditional law school model. It was founded by two Vanderbilt University Law School students in 2009. LST and its administrators operate independently of any legal institutions, legal employers, or academic reports related to the legal market.  It is a very useful website for anyone contemplating law school.  Nothing like this existed when I entered law school more than thirty years ago.

Another concern is that some law schools overreport the employment prospects of their graduates.  For example, the George Washington University school newspaper reported in August that the Law School is paying "to put 95 members of its newly graduated class in paid, full-time legal positions, spending $2 million to $3 million to cushion their fall into the sluggish legal job market."  The law school pays students $15 an hour to work 35-hour-a-week internships at mid-sized law firms and nonprofits.  I don't see anything wrong with the law school doing this provided its reported statistics clearly disclose this.  These aren't real jobs.

In any event, it must be disheartening to earn $15 an hour after spending $278,444 on a GW law degree and knowing that even that modest hourly compensation is a handout covered at least in part by the tuition the student paid, often with borrowed money. Practices such as this have been criticized as a way for law schools to boost their ranking. According to The Examiner, high-ranking schools with similar programs include: the University of Virginia; the University of California, Berkeley;  Duke University; Georgetown University; Cornell University; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

I am glad I went to law school more than thirty years ago.  Law school enriched my life in many ways. But the costs were not as high then as they are now even adjusted for inflation.  Kyle McEntee, Executive Director, LST explained in an email exchange with me that LST has put a lot of effort into presenting data about law schools clearly and fairly, but even more work is needed to lobby the American Bar Association to make changes to its collection procedures and to prompt law schools to provide more information than they do now. So not only is the decision to attend law school different today substantively because of costs and benefits, but because there is far more information available to make an informed decision.

Prospective students need to get the information. I hope this post helps people considering entering the legal profession to find it. Buyer beware. Law schools are businesses. If you go, go with your eyes open. But if you go, know that you are entering a great profession.