Two of the newest law schools to join the ABA’s fold are located in California: the University of La Verne, a private law school in Ontario (a city in California’s “Inland Empire”), and the University of California at Irvine, a public law school. Though fewer than fifty miles apart, their ambitions couldn’t diverge more: La Verne merely aspires to serve its nearby residents while UC-Irvine is boldly trying to be “the ideal law school for the 21st century,” according to its dean and progenitor, Erwin Chemerinsky. Although the schools justify their goals in very different terms, neither is persuasive and both only add to the number of unemployed law school graduates.
University of La Verne
La Verne’s story is unusual. Founded in 1970, it was content to operate as one of California’s many non–ABA law schools until 2006, when it attained provisional ABA approval. The accreditation process did not go La Verne’s way at first because its graduates’ first-time bar passage rates were too low to meet any of the convoluted tests that ABA standards require law schools to pass in order to maintain accreditation. As a result, the ABA rescinded La Verne’s provisional accreditation in the summer of 2011, but the story doesn’t end there.
In a surprise move made without any explanation, the ABA renewed La Verne’s provisional accreditation for five years starting in March 2012. Thus, the school was included in the 2013 edition of the Official Guide, which tells us that in 2011, La Verne students paid $40,000 per year in tuition, and its graduates still passed the bar at the astonishingly low rate of 52.6 percent.
Equally surprising are La Verne’s defenses for pursuing national accreditation, which the school outlines in a June 2011 press release announcing the ABA’s decision to deny it full accreditation. Those reasons include the fact that La Verne is the only ABA law school located in the Inland Empire; that the region’s attorney-to-resident ratio is 1:840, compared to Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, which all have ratios below 1:240; and that there is a “severe” shortage of judicial officers in the area.
None of these justifications make sense. Law schools aren’t like fire stations that serve specific geographic areas. Their graduates are free to move and practice anywhere they want. California and the rest of the country have a surplus of lawyers who could relocate to the Inland Empire if wages were high enough. That 34 percent of La Verne’s graduates were still looking for work in February 2012 demonstrates that the Inland Empire’s “severe” shortage of judicial officers cannot be solved by a local ABA–accredited law school.
It would be reasonable to view the University of La Verne as emblematic of irresponsible ABA growth. Many of its graduates will accumulate more than $100,000 in debt to earn law degrees they will never use because they lack the aptitude to pass the bar. More strikingly, the school thinks that it is doing the region a favor. The ABA’s new Task Force on the Future of Legal Education might want to dedicate some time to investigating why La Verne was reaccredited when it doesn’t appear to be performing any better than before.
Founded in 2009, UC-Irvine rejects La Verne’s values of serving just a specific region. Writing in the The National Law Journal in July 2012, Chemerinsky enthused about creating an “elite,” “top-20″ law school from the outset. What better way to ensure that its graduates pass the bar and find work as lawyers? Unfortunately, creating an elite law school for the 21st century from scratch still requires charging high tuition ($46,800 in tuition and fees for 2012–13) so that UC-Irvine can maintain its low student-to-faculty ratio, which was 6.9:1 in 2011 but will undoubtedly rise slightly going forward. Joining a trend among public law schools, it is receiving little if any state support, according to Chemerinsky.
Despite its high costs, UC-Irvine’s first graduating class, in 2012, appears to be finding some success, with 28 percent of those graduates landing judicial clerkships and another 40 percent receiving offers from major law firms, Chemerinsky related on the blog Balkinization. So has UC-Irvine solved the “new law school riddle” that La Verne could not? No, for many reasons.
(1) The number of “elite” law schools depends on the number of “elite” applicants.
There can only be 20 top-20 law schools. Adding a new one, by definition, displaces another, but even if we were to use a more flexible definition of “elite,” one that relies, say, on the number of applicants with LSAT scores of 160 or higher, we find that pool too is limited—and shrinking. The LSAC’s May 4, 2012, “Current Volume Summary” (no longer publicly available) illustrates the applicant decline this year by LSAT score:
The point is, UC-Irvine is eagerly participating in a zero-sum game, but that’s not all. No one at UC-Irvine has given us any reason to believe that it’s adding significantly more value for its cost than its 19 peers do. Although its 2012 graduates finished school without any law school debt, there’s no reason to believe that they wouldn’t have received comparable employment opportunities had they attended comparables like UCLA or the University of Southern California.
Ultimately, by jumping into the rankings dog pile, UC-Irvine does not meet any unmet demand and only reallocates existing resources to itself. It’s not another La Verne, but by shifting one of its top-20 peers downward, UC-Irvine ipso facto creates one.
(2) Public law schools are obsolete, if they ever made sense to begin with.
It’s bad enough that UC-Irvine claims to add value when it doesn’t, it’s worse that it does so in the State of California’s name. Conventional wisdom generally holds public law schools in higher regard than private ones, especially the La Vernes of the ABA accreditation system. Superficially, this sentiment makes sense. Public law school graduates finish with significantly less law school debt ($82,000 to $120,000 on average in 2011 according to U.S. News and the Official Guide) and are less likely to be unemployed nine months after graduation (7.2 percent versus 10.2 percent in 2011 according to ABA employment data). These distinctions are, however, irrelevant mainly because public law schools’ benefits derive from the fact that they tend to be older than nearby private law schools (strengthening their prestige and alumni bases) and are funded with state taxes.
The point of a public law school is to provide the state’s less wealthy residents access to affordable legal education in order to serve the state’s legal needs, but this policy goal makes little sense today and probably never did. There are more than enough private law schools throughout the country to meet the country’s lawyer needs, and though it’s somewhat mitigated by charging nonresident students more, public law school graduates aren’t obligated to stay in-state.
Indeed, analysis of the ABA’s graduate employment data reveals the mild outflow of public law school graduates in 2011. The most dramatic example was the University of Michigan, whose graduates were more likely to find employment in New York than Michigan. Another 27 public law schools saw at least 10 percent of their graduates find work in other states. Moreover, if a state needs legal services, especially for the poor, it makes more sense to use public funds to pay for legal services directly rather than to subsidize training more lawyers, which benefits the graduates (if jobs are available) and the law schools. There’s little evidence that public law schools provide any positive externalities that justify state subsidies.
Now consider UC-Irvine’s role in these confused policies. It’s one thing to believe that lawyers are a public good that require state subsidies to train (certainly a dubious proposition today) and fund public law schools accordingly, e.g., the University of D.C., which charges residents $10,600 per year. It’s another thing to cut those subsidies to balance state budgets, which is happening all over the United States. But it’s an entirely different matter altogether to open a public law school knowing that it will probably never receive state support and provide no new benefit to the state. By opening its law school, UC-Irvine declared itself a rogue public institution. Instead, it could have opted for state-accreditation, which unlike most states California allows, and served California as public law schools claim to, not that it would have fared much better than its neighbor La Verne, but at least it would have been consistent with its purpose.
There are two lessons the University of La Verne and UC-Irvine provide us. The first is that there is no “responsible” way to create a law school that doesn’t involve creating unemployed graduates. Either the law school will take in students it knows will either not find law jobs or won’t even pass a bar exam (La Verne), or it will force another law school somewhere else to do the same (UC-Irvine).
The second and more significant lesson, which is more closely associated with UC-Irvine than La Verne: We are slowly approaching the endgame for public law schools. Once state governments no longer consider training lawyers a public good, by cutting subsidies, public law schools mutate into vestigial state structures whose agendas are orthogonal to any public purpose, unless using their students’ tuition for other university programs counts. They should either be privatized or closed.
Matt Leichter is a writer and attorney licensed in Wisconsin and New York, and he holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from Marquette University. He operates The Law School Tuition Bubble, which archives, chronicles, and analyzes the deteriorating American legal education system. It is also a platform for higher education and student debt reform.