With the Links–Law Schools React to the Juris Doctor’s Decreasing Value

US News‘s Katy Hopkins pens for us, “As Law School Tuitions Climb, so Does Demand: Some Law Schools Retool Curricula to keep the value of a J.D. strong.”

Standing out from the other legal education figures, who say nothing we haven’t heard before (defer to Elie Mystal), is Bill Henderson (noteworthy for first pointing out the pre-recession bimodality of 2006 starting salaries), making a few comments worth repeating.

“I think [law school] makes you a better problem solver, but the signaling value [of the degree] is diluted,” Henderson says. “Is it worth $50,000 a year? I think, for signaling value, the answer is increasingly ‘no.’ “

Note this contradicts the versatile J.D. argument because a versatile degree has untold value.

“Escalating tuition prices in a troubled market, spurred onward by generous student loans and students who are not fully committed to the profession, is a dangerous bubble that may well burst…I’m trying to separate the value of the legal education from the signaling value that’s driving the bubble,” Henderson said. “The trends are clearly unsustainable.” [my emphasis].

A fair description of the bubble’s mechanism and its unsustainability.  However, I would like Professor Henderson to demonstrate empirically how he knows students aren’t “fully committed to the profession.”  I don’t even know what that means.

Schools like Henderson’s Indiana are retooling parts of the legal education. That institution, for example, has implemented a team-based first-year curriculum and professors are strengthening relationships with employers, Henderson says…”I think the only solution to this is to make sure that [if] we’re charging $150,000, the skills that we impart have to map onto the job demand,” Henderson says [my emphasis].

I’d like Professor Henderson to discuss the bubble without a big bracketed “if”, and I’ll tell you why in the next ‘graph.  Additionally, there is no “job demand,” so no skill sets will make a difference until the economy starts recovering—we’re dividing by zero.  I think it’s fair to say, though, that curricula reforms are something everyone has advocated for a while, but recession aside, Henderson’s improvements angle towards the creation of “super law schools,” which I suppose is what Professor Bainbridge had in mind when he suggested “lopping off the bottom third” of law schools to reduce attorney over-saturation.  I’m not sure if Henderson agrees with Bainbridge’s scheme, but Bainbridge’s super law schools solve the problem for the legal sector at legal consumers’ expense—the bubble would only be temporarily affected because we’d be artificially reducing the number of JDs to increase their market value.  That solution treats the problem as a bottleneck and not a bubble.

Returning to the “[if]”: I fail to see how curricula modifications are anything other than rankings competition via more and better-paid faculty, ratifying the high tuition rates and the bubble.  If (my “if”, the one supported by the BLS) the ultimate outcome is attorney-oversupply even post-recession, then the better curricula merely make 2012+ JDs into Atomic Super-JDs who’ll compete with (and defeat despite massive debt-loads) some laid-off attorneys and “lost-generation” attorneys.  There’s no reason to believe that’s any more sustainable in the long run (say the next decade) than using the same curricula, unless we adopt the Bainbridge Plan.  Henderson’s solution may solve the problem for Bloomington’s 1Ls (one of whom I know), but it doesn’t address the unsustainability of the law school tuition bubble as it affects students in other schools.

The best solution, though, which I hope Henderson considers, is allowing the dischargeability of student debt in bankruptcy.  Force banks (including government lenders) to assess the J.D.’s value, then the market will react accordingly.  Doing so would both be just and eliminate both our “if”s.

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