Google Alerts headaches bookend my view of 2011: in January, a week’s worth of warnings of hyperinflation brought about by law school debt and in December, a near dearth of news on Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law’s (LMU) denial of provisional ABA accreditation and subsequent antitrust lawsuit against the ABA last month. May 2012 improve.
What’s amused me going through the various media sources (NYT, WSJ, x2, the Chronicle of Higher Education, even the last line in the Chicago Tribune‘s interview with the new ABA president, and for fun, an editorial in the Knoxville News Sentinel standing behind the law school) is the unquestioning credence they give LMU’s stated “mission.” The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, note that Duncan’s founder, Pete DeBusk, intends the law school to “bring education to the people from the Appalachian Mountains,” (NYT) and “help students and clients in Appalachia” (CHE). There are many, many problems with this claim:
(1) How does a new law school serve Appalachian clients? Wouldn’t founding a nonprofit legal aid program in the region help Appalachians more than law school graduates? Would a scholarship program at an existing university help more?
(2) Tennessee’s two ABA-accredited public law schools, the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee (in Knoxville, like LMU), charged less than $15,000 per year in tuition in the 2010-11 school year. Why are these two law schools insufficient to serve the legal needs of Appalachia? What about the non-ABA Nashville School of Law, which purports to be the cheapest private law school in the country at $5,292 per year (I think it’s only part time)? Can’t Vanderbilt grads do public service and go on Income Contingent Repayment? If Appalachians need locally trained lawyers, LMU hasn’t told us why these schools don’t work.
(3) Appalachia isn’t defined here, but why does LMU even need national accreditation if it only intends to serve a small region? Can’t ABA grads from nearby states serve the rest of Appalachia, e.g. the University of West Virginia, the three public law schools in Kentucky, and Georgia State University? These law schools were all priced around $15,000 per year two years ago, so it’s unclear why LMU needs to go national. If it sincerely believes the ABA rules make it too expensive, why not forgo it? Nashville School of Law has been around since 1911, and it hasn’t seen any reason to.
(4) This might be the most important point: how does the region in which a law school operates in any way bind its graduates to practice in that region? Aren’t legal services traded on a free market? Won’t graduates move to where the jobs are, especially if they don’t pay well in Appalachia? Atlanta isn’t too far away…
(5) Similarly (and also just as importantly), if non-lawyer jobs in Appalachia pay better than lawyer positions, especially including small practice work, what stops law graduates from opting for those jobs instead law practice? LMU has actually gone to the trouble of determining if its grads will be employable, right?
(6) The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development projects 205 lawyer job openings per year from 2008 to 2018 while the Official Guide lists 445 ABA law school grads alone in 2009 (we don’t know about Nashville’s grads, ~30?). Since there are more law graduates than necessary in Tennessee (and we know there’s no national shortage of law graduates for them to spill over into), Tennessee doesn’t need another law school (I’m not even getting to Belmont University’s law school, est. 2011).
(In fairness, the Tennessee government Web site I linked to states: “There were more training completers in a recent year than job openings expected annually (but not more than 1.5 times as many training completers as job openings).” I don’t know whether graduating law school or receiving a Tennessee law license qualifies one as a “training completer,” but either way, there were more than 1.5 times as many law grads in the state than there were job openings, which is what should matter when deciding to open a new law school.)
(7) There’s a known correlation between LSAT scores and bar exam passage, if LMU’s students’ LSAT scores are at a median of 147, doesn’t that risk enrolling students who will not be able practice law and help the Appalachians? (Note this isn’t the ABA’s rationale for denying it accreditation, which had to do with whether Duncan’s students could complete the program at all.)
So why exactly do media outlets even bring up LMU’s goal of bringing legal education and legal services to the Appalachians? I mean, by including this they imply that LMU’s moral position is stronger than it really is: LMU is the scrappy law school out there to serve the poor, but the evil, bureaucratic ABA denied it accreditation out of spite. Won’t someone please think of the Appalachians? (Shh! Not the ones who won’t pass the bar, never work as lawyers, or still be too poor to afford legal services.)
In reality, while I think it’s reasonable to criticize the vagueness of the accreditation standards the ABA cited to deny LMU provisional accreditation, its principals’ efforts to convince us of their reasons for opening Duncan and seeking ABA approval are neither relevant nor persuasive. Their actions in no way address the problems they claim they’re addressing. This leaves readers to conclude that LMU is either run by self-important Kool-Aid drinkers who sincerely believe that only by obtaining ABA accreditation can Duncan–and Duncan alone–save Appalachia, or it’s cynically using the rural poor as an pretext to tap the limitless fountain of Direct Loans. Yet none of the news reports (much less the editorial) show interest in asking how ABA accreditation furthers LMU’s mission, much less its bottom line.
(Points go to the National Law Journal and Law School Transparency for avoiding editorializing on LMU’s mission and to the latter for citing the exact accreditation standards (twice) the ABA used to deny LMU’s accreditation (Standards 202, 303, 501).)