The thought may be enough to make law school deans cringe and prospective -- but wary -- law students applaud. Two Yale University Law School professors have suggested that law schools pay students to leave.
Not all students, of course. Just those whose first-year work indicates that they might not be able to hack it over the long haul.
"A half-tuition rebate splits the loss of an aborted legal career between the school and the student," writes law professors Akhil Reed Amar and Ian Ayres in an essay titled "Paying Students to Quit Law School." "Each has skin in the game, so students will not go to law school lightly, and law schools will have better incentives not to admit students likely to fail."
The professors suggest that at the end of a law student's first year, law school officials sit down with the student and assess his or her grades and future prospects in comparison to past students at that stage.
"The idea is to mark the end of the first year, after students have received their grades, as a salient decision-making point," write the professors in the essay that can be found on Yale Law School's website or at slate.com. "At that time, students will have learned more about their legal abilities and inclinations. Law schools will also have learned more about each student's abilities, and schools could now disclose how previous students with similar first-year grades fared after graduation."
At the root of the law professors' proposal is the notion that law schools do not fairly represent the past successes and failures of prior students, which prevents prospective students from making a fully informed decision to attend law school. That argument has become the gist of a nationwide debate, as the American Bar Association and other groups have pressured law schools into providing more accurate statistical reports on how students fare after graduation.
Critics point to thousands of recent graduates who left law school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and without much prospect of finding full-time work in the profession.
"Anyone who starts law school with less than a 50 percent chance of passing the bar within three years of graduation should be required to sign a special waiver that he has been informed about the riskiness of his education investment," the professors write. "Warning high-risk applicants before they matriculate helps them protect themselves and reduces the government's risk of unpaid loans in the future."
Brad Saxton, dean of Quinnipiac University School of Law, and Arthur Gaudio, dean of Western New England School of Law, declined interviews for this article. Jeremy Paul, dean of the University of Connecticut's School of Law, however, praised the cleverness of the proposal.
"I applaud them for their creativity and the idea that they're encouraging students at the end of their first year to do a sober reassessment but there's a lot more to that reassessment," said Paul. For example, Paul said he believes a law degree is marketable in fields other than practicing law. So he would be wary about driving away every student who might not make a good lawyer.
"One thing I always tell my students is, the first year of law school is very challenging, it takes a lot out of you, and while you're doing it, the last thing you should be doing is worrying whether law is right for me," said Paul. "You want to get through the first year and do as well as you can. In the summer after the first year, think about it, reflect. Does this direction make sense for me?"
The two law professors, Amar and Ayres, went to law school together at Yale in the mid-1980s and often discuss these kinds of issues.
"We share a sense that law schools need to seriously confront issues facing current law school students, applicants and recent graduates," Amar told the Connecticut Law Tribune. "In particular, schools need to make sure that applicants and law students get reliable information about their financial prospects."
Amar said the feedback so far is positive, in that their essay has provoked discussion and debate.
He further believes that the idea of 50 percent reimbursement after the first year for a law student choosing to leave is economically feasible for law schools.
"We think excellent law schools with proper business models could indeed feasibly implement our ideas," said Amar, who teaches constitutional law. "Perhaps a few schools at first, and slowly, with more modest rebates than we propose, and then more schools offering bigger rebates as the system proves its effectiveness and viability in practice, as we believe it would."
Paul, however, said rebates would be much more economically feasible for a school of Yale's stature than other schools. "For Yale, it's very economically feasible because almost nobody would do it."
On the flip side, schools whose graduates pass the bar exam at lower rates or who are not hired as frequently for high-paying jobs might take a bigger financial hit. "I want to counsel people very carefully," said Paul, "but I don't want to coax them into giving up."