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Sunday, July 17, 2011

A few thoughts on the New York Times article about the cost of legal education.

David Segal's article, Law School Economics:  Ka-Ching! (here), is a must-read for a variety of reasons.  First off, any potential law student who has not yet gotten the message that it's important to research schools to make sure that the fit and the job prospects are right for his or her needs is a student who's either too rich to care or too cavalier to be a good lawyer.  It's become really costly to go to law school "because you can't decide what you want to be when you grow up."  (Is law school good training for a lot of fields?  You bet.  Do you want to go into six-figure hock because you'll get good training?  Um....)

But there's more going on in this article.  I have a lot of respect for Rick Matasar, New York Law School's current dean.  I believe that he's one of the few deans in the country who's willing to question the current model of legal education.

The article questions the link between Rick's beliefs and his ability to effect change.  But as I've said before (here), deans can't change law schools all by themselves.  The principle of faculty governance means that the really important decisions (e.g., admissions, curriculum, faculty hiring) are shared between the administration and faculty; and although the budget is an administrative prerogative, I've yet to meet a law professor (me included) who wants to take a serious salary cut to make law school more affordable for students.

Want a nice building?  It'll cost you.
Want really talented faculty and staff members?  It'll cost you.
Want enough staff to help you with your studies and help you find a job?  It'll cost you.
Want the ability to prove yourself, even though your predictors* suggest that you might not fit this career?  You're going to have to prove yourself at a school willing to take a chance on you, which means it's going to have to have a large enough budget to diversify the risks of students dropping out after the first year.

Be realistic. Law school tuitions aren't going down, and for many people, they're simply unaffordable--especially when you link the cost of law school to the likelihood of repaying law school loans, which are virtually always nondischargeable in bankruptcy.

What does this mean for you when you're choosing a school?  You might want to listen to Bill Henderson & Andy Morriss.  They've suggested looking at lower-cost options (here).  That would mean that you should (1) pay attention to the amount that you'll be spending on law school after you take any scholarships into account, and (2) consider state law schools.**

Do the math.  Do I think that law school makes sense for a lot of people?  Sure.  But the students I want are those who have thought the economics of going to law school through thoroughly first. 

* And in case you think that I'm a predictor snob, I'm reasonably certain that I had the lowest LSAT in my first-year class.  It's possible to overcome your predictors.

** Of course, as the states reduce their subsidies of law schools, more of those schools are considering going to a private financing model (here).  So much for affordable tuition.

UPDATE (7/19/11), from my very smart friend George Connelly, Jr. (and his firm picture does NOT do him justice):  
Two comments.  First, as to having to pay the best teachers, I pointed out that, 40 yrs ago, I can think of several with tenure (2 with endowed chairs) who had no interest in teaching or, for that matter, contact with students, while some who aspired to teach did not have the gene (and probably could not have gotten it with gene therapy).  If that is what our law students today are being charged for, it is highway robbery.

Second, about burgeoning student loans for law students:  law schools ought to guarantee at least part of them, to have skin in the game, and in that event the placement (aka career "services") offices might feel pressure to help secure jobs for students below the top 10%.

Thanks, George:  my favorite teachers, at Rice and at Stanford, were both (1) really, really good scholars and (2) teachers who cared enough about their students to work hard at teaching well.  It's possible that imprinting establishes teaching ability, to some extent.  Law professors who, as students, had professors who were inspired teachers as well as scholars (Jack Friedenthal, Bob Weisberg, and Larry Temkin all come to mind for me) are more likely to spend time honing their teaching.  The other factor, of course, is that people will do what their employers reward, so if law schools don't factor in teaching for things like promotions and raises, the ball game's over as far as spending time on teaching is concerned.  As for skin in the game, I agree that it's important, and one way to keep skin in the game is to crack down on misleading information--if schools can hide their true placement statistics and the most realistic starting salaries, then there's no consequence for misleading people, and schools will focus more on the factors for which they get rewarded (in the rankings, by their universities, etc.).