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Leslie Kwoh, “Irate Law School Grads Say They Were Mislead about Job Prospects,” New Jersey Star-Ledger

A fairly concise article on the law school tuition bubble without calling it a law school tuition bubble.  A few points:

  • The ABA affirms the $65,000 break-even starting salary.
  • “Since the start of the decade, 18 new schools have received accreditation, adding to the existing 182 and helping swell the ranks of enrollment by 20,000 students.”

I’m sure this means that enrollments have increased by 20,000 across all schools, not just these eighteen.  This is something I didn’t know was going on.  More students doesn’t help a faculty/student ratio, nor does it reduce expenditures/student.  One can guess it helps the non-professional branches in universities overall.

  • “School administrators, who admit to keeping tabs on these so-called ‘scam blogs,’ which now number in the dozens, bristle at the charge that they run diploma mills. Not every graduate can land a six-figure job at a big-name law firm—especially during the current downturn—but many still find fulfilling careers in and out of the legal field, said Claudette St. Romain, an associate dean at Seton Hall, one of three law schools in New Jersey.”

Wow, I didn’t realize administrators were so sensitive to the angry bloggers.  The problem isn’t whether the J.D. is versatile enough to get a law grad a job–the J.D. shouldn’t need to be so versatile–the issue is whether the overall legal education system is providing a break-even return on investment, even if it’s not fun work, and that incoming students understand that they’re paying more than its value.  I find that situation a backhand to U.S. economic policy: you can’t get a job with a bachelors degree, but you have a chance at a career if you overpay for a law degree.  Not to be inconsistent with how I started this paragraph, but I sympathize with law school deans’ feelings at being told they’re charlatans–no one should enjoy that.  I draw the line at refusing to agree there’s a systemic problem, one that reflects the overall failure of our economic policy.

  • [Dean St. Romain continues,] “‘For a person with passion, a certain talent and a certain outlook, it’s a great education,’ noting that Gov. Chris Christie and several state senators are among the school’s alumni. ‘But it’s not for everybody—don’t get me wrong.'”…”Average law school tuitions have risen twice as fast as inflation over the last two decades, to $35,740 for private schools in 2008, up from just $9,650 in 1998, according to the ABA. Living and book expenses ballooned to $13,680 during the same period.”

Asset bubbles are temporal, generational phenomena.  Most of my friends’ parents bought houses decades ago before the housing bubble, and while they lost some value, they’re not paying negative equity on their mortgages.  Likewise, graduates who finished law school twenty or more years ago, like Governor Christie, don’t face the same problems younger attorneys do.  Thus, the tuition bubble affects a subset of attorneys that aren’t publicaly visible.  Younger attorneys tend not to sit on state bar or ABA committees, which is why I think critics and administrators should take what “scam bloggers” say with somewhat thicker skin.  Saying law isn’t for everyone is a non-sequitur because it doesn’t address the systemic problems legal education is facing.

  • “The rise in tuitions, [Wash U. Professor Brian] Tamanaha said, is partly the result of a trend among law schools to expand their faculties so that individual professors have more time to focus on academic research. However, while this practice might help schools boost their standing in magazine rankings, which place heavy emphasis on academics, it does little to benefit graduates after they get their diplomas, he said.”

Prof. Tamanaha wrote on law school instructors’ responsibility in the face of the tuition bubble in June, so along with Bill Henderson, his is a name you should expect to hear in the future.  I like how he crisply connects magazine rankings dog-piling to the bubble-fueled rise of super law schools.

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