Links Generation—Law School Deans Are Not Experts on the Legal Labor Market, and Taxpayers Fund Army Officers’ Legal Education

When you run out of Beatles albums, you move to the Who.

Two links have caught my eye.

(1) LeeAnn Maton, “Law School No ‘Magic Bullet’ Against Recession, but Financial Aid Can Help,” in Wallet Pop

[I]s investing in a law degree still worth the expense?  Actually, yes, according to three legal education experts who spoke to Money College about law school financial aid.  [emphasis explained below]

Really??  Please, please, please prove me wrong about the tuition bubble!  Who are these three experts?  Behold:

  • Susan Saab Fortney, Interim Dean and Professor at Texas Tech University of Law
  • Beth Hall, Associate Dean of Admissions at Nova Southeastern University
  • Robert Levine, Assistant Dean for Career Development at Nova Southeastern University

Oh, all law school deans.  Hmm.  Not a diverse crowd.  Dean Fortney sums up their views:

With the downturn in the economy and changes in the legal profession, [college?] graduates should not assume that they will waltz into a job that pays six-figures…People should see legal education as a solid graduate education that gives you a number of different options, as your job opportunities aren’t limited to traditional law practice.

College graduates should assume that because the legal services sector is not a free market that its regulators ensure that tuition is calculated at a reasonable return-on-investment (ROI) rate.  As of now, the only calculations I’ve seen are $65,000 per year minimum in starting salaries.  So, yes, it need not be six-figures (and no one could ever “waltz” into those), but it does have to be well above median family income to justify the cost.  As for employment options, these need to be specified, especially for applicants.  Is a juris doctor necessary and relevant to graduates’ current occupations?  How much supplemental knowledge was required, and how much did it cost to obtain?  Are they compensated at a break-even ROI?  The juris doctor’s versatility must be thoroughly proven before I will listen to these arguments.

In fairness, Texas Tech charges a maximum of $23,295 per year in tuition to non-residents, and it has been resisting excessive tuition increases.  Its assistant/associate/full professors make $105,000/$108,917/$146,505 per year respectively.  Last year, those numbers were: $103,250/$108,472/$139,641, an increase of 1.5%/0.4%/5% for each.  However, in 1998, Texas Tech was one of the few law schools to submit its salary information to SALT’s survey.  $75,246/$83,601/$109,677 back then.  From 1998 to 2010, assistant professors’ salaries increased 39.5%, associate professors 29.7%, and full professors 33.6%.  Surprisingly, these have largely kept up with inflation, and the school is known for a high in-state bar passage rate.  Tragically (and I’m sure you saw this coming), Texas Tech’s reward for fiscal restraint and teaching the bar is a third tier ranking from US News & World Report.

Then again, for a degree that’s not “limited to traditional law practice,” a high bar passage rate implies the students are opting for that anyway.  I hope that’s out of choice and not necessity.  Also, the school’s career page does not display any employment statistics.  I’m disappointed that a dean and expert in legal education is not encouraging transparency to her school’s career services personnel.

For its part, Nova Southeastern charges $32,107 per year tuition to full-time students.  Its instructors are paid roughly the same amount as those at Texas Tech, though its full professors received 44% salary increases between 1999-2009, more than 10% above the inflation rate.  Tuition increasing (along with a brutal tier 4 ranking from U.S. News), Nova too declines to provide graduate employment statistics to the public.

At this point, I have two sentiments.

  1. I don’t want to hear from “experts in legal education” anymore; I want to hear from experts in the legal labor market.  While I understand that law school deans are almost always well-regarded attorneys holding positions of prestige, there really isn’t any reason to believe they’re experts in the legal labor market.  Dean David Van Zandt (formerly of Northwestern) was the sole exception I can think of, but he actually bothered to conduct a study that found tuition was too high at most law schools.  His study is one that set the $65,000 break-even ROI starting salary.
  2. Notwithstanding the previous point, I’m not persuaded that the three individuals interviewed by Ms. Maton are experts in the legal labor market because their schools do not provide outcome statistics.  If they were such experts, they’d advise their career planning services on how to employ their students, and in turn publish these positive outcomes.

(2) Katherine Rosario, “Army Sends Officers to Law School to Become Judge Advocates,” in Katherine Siegel-Rosario’s Weblog

The U.S. Army has the Funded Legal Education Program (FLEP) to pay its officers’ law school tuition and salary, but there is a “Six-year backend commitment added to a Soldier’s previous commitment to the Army.”  The officers must attend public schools but Uncle Sam pays in-state tuition from the beginning as well as moving costs.  Officers also benefit with guaranteed paid summer work.

FLEP interests me for two reasons.  First, it’s an example of a Human Capital Contract Richard Vedder proposes.  It works especially well because it’s a rare instance where enforcement and adverse selection are non-issues.  Officers cannot evade the commitment necessary to repay the patron, unless they want to spend time in the stockade before their dishonorable discharge.  Good luck passing a character and fitness test (much less getting a law job at all) with one of those.

Second, it’s good they can’t attend private schools, but some public law schools vastly overpay their faculty out of state coffers rather than student tuition (though that’s slowly changing as state budgets contract).  I’d hate for taxpayers to subsidize the tuition bubble, but this is the problem with human capital contracts: the money has to come from somewhere, and in theory, employers would rarely have hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around, so they’d have to borrow it themselves.  In this instance, military law is arcane and separate from civilian courts, so it’s understandable that the masses of unemployed JDs wouldn’t do.  In the private sector though, corporate America is sitting on $1.7 trillion in cash, meaning human capital isn’t in demand, and legal sector human capital, contrary to what the deans above would have you believe, really isn’t in demand.

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3 Responses

  1. Very interesting comments but one sentence needs clarification. “Officers also benefit with guaranteed paid summer work.” Officers are not paid any extra to work during the summer. Though they still receive their officer pay grade allowance, no extra money is paid out to them for internships. It is expected that they will have internships, though yes, it is somewhat easier to obtain them as JAG is aware of the program the Soldiers are enrolled in. JAG also provides civilians with summer internship opportunities.

  2. Thanks for the clarifications, Katherine.

    Makes sense that officers wouldn’t receive anything extra over their salaries. My thought was that compared to most law students’ opportunities, a FLEP officer’s summer work would be: guaranteed (fewer job applications, no need to be in the top 5% of the class?), paid (not extra), and relevant to his or her future career. Most law students would love to find themselves in similar situations.

    You’re also right to point out JAG internships for civilian law students.

  3. Yes this is true. I don’t know if the Army really guarantees anything but if they are paying for 25 Soldiers a year to attend law school they will make sure they have the training required to preform their jobs to best of their ability before placed on an Army post.

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