The crisis in legal education continues, with the number of people applying to law school declining along with the job prospects for those who graduate. In the face of these trends, some law school deans are still trying to preserve an unsustainable business model. Offering what they apparently regard as innovative ideas, they’re making things worse.
Moving Through the Five Stages of Grief
As deans confront declining applicant pools, many are moving through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
In a previous column, I discussed deans stuck in stage 1—especially those who have taken to the editorial pages of major newspapers to tout the inherent value of a $150,000 legal degree for students who have little hope of getting jobs practicing law. Apply now, they urged, because declining applications improve your prospects for admission. Then you can do lots of great things that don’t require a J.D.
Case Western Law School dean Lawrence Mitchell made himself a poster child for these deans in denial, but he wasn’t alone. Other deans and former deans have offered similar analyses that miss the mark about what has caused the lawyer bubble to inflate and offer proposals that distract attention from their own culpability in creating the problem. Some have advanced to stage 2: anger over the situation and anyone who publicizes it.
From Anger to Bargaining
A few deans have reached stage 3: bargaining. Their schools have reduced tuition and/or guaranteed to freeze tuition during a student’s three years. Touro Law, for instance, recently announced a special kind of bargain that targets the least-informed potential applicants, who also happen to be most vulnerable to law schools’ superficial sales pitches.
Under a partnership with the University of Central Florida, prospective law students can apply to an accelerated undergraduate program that allows them to attend UCF for three years and then complete their fourth year at Touro Law. They would receive their UCF bachelor’s degree upon completion of their 1L year at Touro.
Quite a deal, right?
Some Things You Should Know
Touro Law inhabits the world of U.S. News and World Report’s unranked nether regions. Readers know that I’m no fan of those rankings, but it’s safe to say that no one would regard Touro as a top law school by any measure. According to U.S. News, it accepted 64 percent of all applicants last year.
Touro’s recent trends are especially revealing. (The following statistics come from the archives of the LSAC “Official Law School Guide.”)
In 2005 the school awarded 158 J.D. degrees and charged annual tuition of about $26,000.
In 2009 the school awarded 200 J.D.s and increased annual tuition to more than $36,000.
In 2011 the school awarded 221 J.D.s. Sixty percent of Touro’s graduates found full-time long-term jobs requiring that degree. Tuition topped $40,000.
In 2012 the school awarded 244 J.D.s, but only 53 percent of those who got them wound up with long-term full-time jobs requiring such a degree. Touro’s tuition now stands at $43,000.
In other words, as the Great Recession worsened and the demand for lawyers collapsed—especially for graduates of schools like Touro Law—the school increased both tuition and class size, even as its ability to place graduates in legal jobs declined.
The Business Model at Work
Perhaps it’s unfair to single out Touro for behavior—increasing class size and raising tuition as demand for new lawyers declined—that has pervaded legal education. But the school’s latest initiative invites close scrutiny of its motives.
According to Touro Law’s new dean, Patricia Salkin, “It’s a financial bargain for the UCF undergraduates and takes some pressure off the law school application process.”
My guess is that it’s a financial bargain for Touro Law, too, especially if it gets to keep most of the tuition that the UCF students pay to attend first-year law school classes. (Annual tuition at UCF is $6,200 for Florida residents and $22,300 for out-of-state students, compared to the $43,000 Touro Law charges.)
As for relieving the pressure of the law school application process, Touro can claim that benefit for itself, too. There’s nothing like locking in a law student three years before he or she might otherwise apply.
What Are We Doing to Our Kids?
It’s bad enough that current UCF undergraduates are eligible for this “fast-track program.” (Even the name implies selectivity that sounds enticing, doesn’t it?) But encouraging—or even allowing—woefully uninformed high school students to apply to law school as entering UCF freshmen is something else.
The next step for some law schools seems painfully clear: setting up recruiting tables in middle school cafeterias across the country.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, 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.