Case Western Reserve Law School Dean Lawrence E. Mitchell’s recent New York Times op-ed proves that he, like many law school deans, is living in a bubble. Indeed, the views expressed by Mitchell in “Law School Is Worth the Money” underscore one of my reasons for writing The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis, which Basic Books will publish in April 2013. (Another reason is the troubling transformation of most big law firms, but that’s for another day.)
In his spirited defense of Case Western Reserve and its counterparts, Mitchell concludes that the “overwrought atmosphere has created irrationalities that prevent talented students from realizing their ambitions.” Apparently, he thinks everyone should just calm down, ignore facts, and keep pushing naive undergraduates into law school, without regard to what will happen to them thereafter. He’s wrong.
Mitchell argues that a legal career is no worse choice than any other because the job market is bad in many industries. He notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in the number of lawyer jobs from 2010 to 2020 at 10 percent—roughly comparable to the average rate for all occupations.
Here’s the thing: that 10 percent growth covers the entire 10 years from 2010 to 2020 for a total net increase in the number of lawyer jobs of 73,600. And that number is down from a 2008 BLS estimate of 98,500. Given that 44,000 new law graduates hit the market each year, law schools are pumping out enough new attorneys to fill ten years’ worth of demand every two years.
Other studies that factor in attrition suggest that, given this mismatch between supply and demand, there might be law jobs for about half of all graduates over the next 10 years. Case Western Reserve, where Mitchell is dean, is typical of midrange law schools: It’s a fine institution, but according to the ABA, nine months after graduation, only 94 of the 201-member class of 2011 had full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage.
With respect to the cost of a legal education, Mitchell says that “one report shows that tuition at private law schools has increased 160 percent from 1985 to 2011.” That would be bad enough, but it understates the overall problem. Mitchell doesn’t identify his source, but according to the ABA, median private law school tuition in 1985 was $7,385. In 2011, it was $39,496—an increase of more than 400 percent. The rate of increase for resident public law school tuition was far greater. Assuming that Mitchell’s source adjusts for constant dollars, that’s still a whopping increase.
Mitchell then compares law school with medical school where, even by his calculation, tuition has increased less (63 percent since 1985). But he excuses law school excesses by arguing that medical schools began the period with average tuition that was four times higher. That’s a false equivalence.
It should cost far less to train a lawyer than a doctor—just as it did in 1985. But it doesn’t. Why not? Because law schools have become cash cows, returning as much as 30 percent of tuition revenues to their universities. Moreover, pandering to U.S. News ranking criteria encourages law school expenditures without regard to value added. Federally guaranteed student loans fuel the system in ways that relieve law schools from meaningful accountability as they glut the market.
Mitchell dismisses the fact that average law school debt exceeds $125,000 with the cavalier assertion that “the average lawyer’s salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.” He notes that attorneys’ average starting salaries have increased 125 percent since 1985.
Unfortunately, the average includes only those who actually have lawyer jobs, and it doesn’t consider the fact that, as Above the Law’s Elie Mystal emphasizes often, the average masks the bimodal distribution of attorney income. Thanks to the skewing effect of big-law-firm compensation (where only 15 percent of lawyers practice), most lawyers earn far less than the industry average. Moreover, median salaries for new attorneys have been dropping like a rock—from $72,000 a year to $60,000 since 2009. As already noted, the cost of law school tuition has headed the other way.
Perhaps what’s really bothering Mitchell is the fact that prospective law students are finally beginning to see the legal world more clearly and, at long last, the results may be showing up in reduced applications to schools below the top tier. But he need not worry because ongoing market distortions mean that it will be a long, long time before equilibrium is reached. In 2012, almost 70,000 prospective lawyers applied for almost 50,000 law school spots—even though there may be legal jobs for only half of them.
Armed with complete information about the challenges and rewards of a legal career, the best and the brightest future lawyers will still enter the profession. They’ll incur six-figure debt that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy because they’ll conclude that the investment is worth the risk—but they’ll consider the risk. Making an informed decision requires them to separate facts from magical thinking. For that, they’re on their own because, as Mitchell reveals, most law school deans don’t—or won’t.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.