Legal Education in New York: Top of the Heap or Dream Deferred

For the record, I have no taste for Frank Sinatra.

Okay, I’m in the mood for more number-crunching, so I shall inflict it upon you, faithless reader.  In recent weeks, the dramatic regional law student saturation stuck in my mind.  Because it’s a large and popular market, I turn to the other state I haven’t been disciplined in: New York.

For those of you who read the Charge of the Juris Doctor Brigade, you’ll recall that New York added four law schools between 1970 and 1983 (one opened in 1970, but I didn’t count it, sparing the state further embarrassment).  All of these newer ones are in the New York metropolitan area.  Interestingly, unlike other areas that’ve grown rapidly in the postwar era, New York City and state suffered a population decline between 1970 and 1980.  That didn’t prevent these law schools from opening though, so we can predict that the city’s law school density issues are quite dire.  Let’s see…

Location (# of ABA Schools) Location Population (2009)/ABA Law Students (2007-08), incl. part-time students
National Average (Crittenden) ~2,000
New York State (15) 1,169.1
New York City (8)[i] 8,391,881/11,095 = 756.4
New York CSA (15)[ii] 22,232,494/16,875 = 1317.5
Buffalo CSA (1)
1,203,493/757 = 1589.8
Albany CSA (1) 1,151,653/783 = 1470.8
Syracuse CSA (1) 725,610/640 = 1133.8
Ithaca CSA (1) 149,775/664 = 225.6

Recall that the Twin Cities’ CSA has 1,168.4 residents/law student, so the NYC CSA is slightly better, heaping more ridicule to Minnesota’s legal education establishment.  Chicago is slightly better than both.  Admittedly, New York City has some exceptional legal needs, specifically public international law and finance, and many law grads are more likely to leave New York both for other parts of the country and for foreign countries than graduates in other states, which is counteracted by people moving to New York.  However, given that the city and CSA are well below the national average, I’m still skeptical.  Additionally, New York’s outstate schools, especially Cornell, probably try to serve more than local markets.

Why would New York add five law schools in forty years, all during a period of population decline (not to mention the economic dislocation New York City witnessed in the 70s and 80s)?  First, I’d hazard that class sizes then were far smaller than now.  Second, the schools also came in to being somewhat gradually.  For example, in Minnesota, Hamline opened in 1972, but when St. Thomas opened in 1999, the effect on the cities and state were far more obvious.  Anecdotally, even in the early 2000s I knew people who had to work far outstate in Minnesota because there were so many law grads instate.

Contrast that to New York: The most recent law school, CUNY, opened in 1983, so all fifteen have been quietly operating for twenty-seven years.  It’s not as though a university dropped a law school the size of Cooley in midtown Manhattan in 1999.  Add to that the economic “recovery” in the 1980s that shifted income to wealthier people (undoubtedly including attorneys) and the dotcom and housing bubbles, there wouldn’t be too much thought as to legal sector density.  I should also add that tuition only started to increase over the inflation rate in the early 1990s, so perhaps it was dense but people were still able to service their loans.


To editorialize somewhat (more than usual), even if they couldn’t service the loans, because of the staggered rather than sudden increase in law schools, I’d expect young lawyers to either blame themselves or the City’s rat-race reputation rather than the legal education system for their disappointment at not getting the Biglaw job (they thought) they wanted.  This reminds me of a common debate one sees in the anti-law school commentary: there’s always some solo practitioner who points out that new law students carry too high expectations, and that they should move to rural areas to start their own practices.  Then of course a failed solo practitioner comments on how that didn’t work and the cycle continues.  The grain of truth I find in our wizened solo’s argument (and this may be what Bill Henderson meant when he claimed many law students aren’t “fully committed to the profession.”) is that today’s law students assume they’ll be able to practice in the area where they got their degree.  That it’ll be easy for them to find work nearby, and that even if opening a practice in Plattsburg, NY—right on the Canadian border—is easier, it’s an option that they shouldn’t ever have to consider.  This assumption contrasts to the prewar system in which people went to East Coast law schools and then returned to their home communities.

Whenever I consider the locality assumption though, I can’t bring myself to blame the students.  I don’t know of any urban law school that explicitly markets itself (with minimal tuition to boot) to the public as specializing in training for solo or small firm practice.  Indeed, as this blog has taught me, law schools have dramatically increased their faculties over the last decade, in part—they claim—because legal education requires more doctrinal specialization.  Law schools would be ill-advised to participate in the tuition bubble and then criticize the students for not becoming general practitioners.  Moreover, an urban law school will undeniably require higher tuition to pay overhead and salaries due to the higher cost of space and cost of living.  Due to the economy of scale necessary for their upkeep, I believe urban law schools are locked into providing “super law school” educations.

Returning to New York: as I think I’ve said before, I concede that I have no idea what the optimal number of lawyers/law students to population should be or even if that’s the best measure (as indicated by the attorney:gross state product table).  Maybe 1:1000 is just dandy, but given that Patrick Thornton can round up all four of Minnesota’s law school deans to comment on what he calls a law school tuition bubble, and also that there are more lawyers:GSP in New York than Minnesota, I think it’s fair to say by analogy that New York City, metro area, and state are over-saturated as well.

[i] NYC’s 2009 Population was 8,391,881 according to  Includes: Brooklyn, Cardozo, Columbia, CUNY, Fordham, NYLS, NYU, and St. Johns.


[ii] Add Yale and Quinnipiac (CT), Rutgers (Newark) and Seton Hall (NJ), and Hofstra, Pace, and Tuoro (NY).


  1. I wish I could post for you the picture I drew for our graduating law school class tee-shirts in 1994 from Western New England College School of Law. It was a few grads in graduation garb warming their hands while standing around a metal garbage can with a fire that was being fueled by their law school books. Get the picture.

    Almost 20 years later, I still owe 95% of the $30,000 I took out in federal loans but have made a go at a career advising nonprofits. But, boy was it a struggle and still is.

    1. jgudema, your story reminds me of something that happened to me recently. I was out for a walk a few weeks ago and saw a box out by the curb with a contracts and land use planning casebooks inside. I thought, “Man, throw that onto the fire next winter.” I wonder what happened to the law student.

  2. You have inspired me to see if I still have that tee-shirt and maybe I can scan it and post it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I actually have enjoyed my legal career and have done a ton with the law background – it just hasn’t been what we all expected and particularly not very profitable.

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