Flunking Legal Education Civics: Why the ABA Journal Knows So Little

This month’s ABA Journal featured a main article titled, “Flunking Civics: Why America’s Kids Know So Little,” which reported the extent of young Americans’ ignorance regarding their government’s basic structure. The same sentiment can be extended to the ABA Journal’s knowledge of the U.S. legal education system, for the same issue’s regular feature, the “President’s Message,” “Should They or Shouldn’t They? Truth in Legal Education Will Help Prospective Law Students Make Informed Decisions,” evidenced ignorance and misleading data on the subject. To summarize: ABA President Stephen Zack praised various ABA bodies’ efforts to empower college students to solve the law schools’ problems by improving law school graduate employment survey data disclosures. The ABA Journal disserved President Zack by failing to edit portions that resurrect the undead bottleneck argument. This failure should lead readers to question whether the ABA Journal’s editors know anything about legal education civics at all. Notably, the President’s Message states:

Even in these difficult times law students have not made a mistake in choosing the law as their profession.

Superficially, this statement should concern us because if law is not a mistake for anyone, then why all the fuss over law school employment data? But on the plus side, I hope our legal educators, rankings editors, and pundits recognize that this quote silences any claim suggesting that law students should bear all the risk of a bad market for attorneys, for if law is not a mistake, then they’ve borne no risk.

More deeply, the quote and the rest of the President’s Message surprisingly omit the Siamese twin problems facing legal education: law graduate overproduction and the tuition bubble. Using data that legal educators increasingly expect prospective law students to research themselves, the U.S. economy will add roughly 24,000 attorney jobs per year until 2018 while the ABA system alone graduates 44,000 students per year—a clear excess. Moreover, tuition continues increasing above the inflation rate without any demonstrable gain in graduates’ legal acumen, which implies the increases in no way benefit the students or the taxpayers ultimately financing them.

(Actually, the "JDs Awarded" numbers are for the 1990-1991 and 2009-2010 school years.)

Instead of directing President Zack to these problems, the ABA Journal’s editors chose to include a misleading chart indicating (correctly) that the ABA system has slightly shrunk relative to the U.S. population over the last twenty years. It should’ve included this table as well:

Source: ABA, BLS

Tuition at a Glance 1990 (CPI-adjusted 2009) 2009 % Increase
Avg. Private LS Tuition $19,250.88 $35,743 86%
Avg. Pub. Non-Res LS Tuition $12,089.25 $30,413 152%
Avg. Pub. Res. LS Tuition $5,311.72 $18,472 248%

Had the editors known legal education history, they would know that the relevant increase in law school graduates began around forty years ago when the number of grads per 10,000 residents was 0.81 (1972) but grew very rapidly to 1.30 in 1974 (2010=1.43). To date, no evidence has emerged suggesting there was an attorney shortage pre-1970, leading us to question if the expansion was necessary at all.

Dear ABA Journal, please inlude this graph whenever you talk about law students per capita. -LSTB

These errors are unfortunate because unlike prospective law students (whom everyone expects to comprehensively inform themselves about their employment prospects based on information from the law schools, NALP, Law School Transparency, existing practitioners, and if they’re smart the BLS), the ABA Journal’s editors apparently believe ABA officials are privileged to remain ignorant about the problems facing the legal education system.

Consequently, the Law School Tuition Bubble gives the ABA Journal an -F- in Legal Education Civics. </Beat the [Legal] Press-mode>



  1. “law students have not made a mistake in choosing the law as their profession.”

    My god, I don’t even think most law school deans would go that far. Even people who think there’s nothing wrong with the system will admit some people make mistakes. Why didn’t the ABA Journal just change its name to Pravda for a week?

    And the 1990-2010 comparison cracks me up. I wonder if they even considered that maybe the system as a whole was over-saturated in 1990 as well, or that a shrinking system may still be over-saturated if the economic field supporting the system is shrinking at a faster rate (not necessarily true, just a possibility).

  2. The ABA Journal knows so little because they do not want to acknowledge and face the reality of the situation. If they were knew the extent of the problem, then they might be placed in the uncomfortable position of (giving the appearance of) pushing for change. They don’t want to do that.

    The ABA is – and always has been – concerned with the interests of Biglaw. As far as these cockroaches are concerned, the average lawyer does not matter. Could you imagine if U.S. medical or dental schools produced nearly twice as many physicians and dentists than needed?!?!

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