In Failing Law Schools, Brian Tamanaha argues that law school is no longer a realistic option for most students, who emerge deeply in debt and with slim prospects for well-paying legal jobs. Here are his arguments in summary:
• For decades, high demand for seats in law schools has allowed them to raise tuition far beyond the rate of inflation. Elite law schools have led the way toward $50,000-a-year tuition. Strong demand for lawyers contributed, too.
• The American Bar Association historically has been dominated by legal educators who advance their self-interest through features including faculty tenure and a three-year J.D. curriculum that drive up educational costs.
• Pressure to maintain or improve their U.S. News & World Report ranking resulted in administrators prioritizing factors that weigh in the rankings formula regardless of their cost to students, as explained at right.
• Increased tuition revenues allowed law schools to reduce faculty teaching loads and prioritize academic scholarship, inflating faculty size. Meanwhile, competition for faculty superstars, and the prestige they bring, has bloated salaries.
• Law schools funneled money into merit scholarships to lure students with high SAT scores and GPAs. This improved their U.S. News rankings but left the bottom half of the class subsidizing the top half. Schools spent thousands on promotional materials to boost their prestige and to recruit transfer students, whose SAT scores and GPAs as first-year students can work against them in the rankings.
• Tuition at public law schools has increased by an average 10 percent per year since 1987; average tuition at private law schools, already higher than at public schools, increased by $15,000 in the past 10 years. Average graduate debt loads have skyrocketed, topping out at $145,621 at California Western School of Law in 2010.
• Servicing law school loans has become more difficult, given the recession, but schools are struggling to place their graduates in legal jobs. Since at least 2001, about one-third of law graduates have failed to land jobs as lawyers.
• About half or more of the law graduates of 2010 would likely qualify for Income Based Repayment — a federal hardship program.
• Legal educators must recognize that law schools are in a crisis and must advocate for change from within.
• The ABA should de-emphasize faculty tenure and academic scholarship, allowing for greater differentiation between law schools and the emergence of cheaper, teaching-based law schools.
• The federal government should cap either the amount of money each law student may receive in federal loans or the total going to any single law school. The Department of Education should demand greater accountability, stripping federal loan-program eligibility from law schools with high percentages of graduates who cannot repay their loans. — Karen Sloan