Law School Education: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

1184 words | 4 page(s)

Students graduating from law school today face huge challenges in their efforts to find full-time careers utilizing their degrees. After spending their own, their families’, and student loan money, these students emerge from law school deep in debt (estimated $100,000 worth of student loans on average) (Jost 16), yet unable to find any jobs as attorneys, or ones that pay enough to cover this cost. Despite a downward trend in law school applicants, law schools spend significant income trying to make themselves appealing to prospective students (Campos 194), especially when scrutinized under criteria used by U.S. News and Weekly Report, to rank law schools annually. Steps must be taken to rectify this problem, which has ramifications at many levels within the legal field. Law schools can reduce their salary expense, begin practical-oriented programs, and even shorten their degree requirements to two years rather than three. Bluntly put, jobs requiring a law degree are decreasing. Law school enrollment is decreasing. The salary of law school graduates, relative to their education-related debt, is decreasing. Yet law school tuitions are increasing. A disconnect exists between reality in the legal profession and law school practices, which must be addressed.

Trends in legal employment and salaries reflect the alarming state of today’s economy. The number of law school graduates obtaining jobs as lawyers has decreased over the past decade. As Campos notes (179), many tasks formerly performed by attorneys are now available online, through self-representation, through automated services, or from legally-connected non-attorney personnel. As a result, law firms are reducing the number of attorneys they hire. Some firms have cut back on or stopped hiring first year students straight out of law school altogether (Jost 18). Jost continues that, even lawyers who manage to obtain employment in their field, often it is part-time or non-partnership track. Therefore, given today’s receding economy, the prospects for a student opening a law office are dim.

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In addition, lawyers’ salaries have not kept pace with their expenses (Campos 194). According to most sources, the average law student graduates with $100,000 student loan debt (Mangan, 1), roughly $76,000 if from public institutions, and $125,000 if from private (Jost 14). How this translates in future earnings impact is severe. In an urban market such as Chicago, average attorney annual income runs around $60,000/year. In most areas it is much lower. Given this debt/income ratio, attorneys must spend approximately 50% of their annual income servicing and liquidating their law school debt and meeting housing experiences (Jost 4).

Given this situation, many analysts (as well as future law students) believe that law schools are not being responsive to the current market crisis (Mangan 1). Law schools are increasing the burden upon students by raising tuition despite bleak employment options. To attract the best and the brightest from a decreasing pool of law school applicants, law schools spend money to raise their annual ratings in accordance with U.S. News and World Report’s ranking criteria, with detrimental effects. For instance, law schools must maintain a certain number of full-time faculty. Tenured faculty salaries are high and cannot be reduced (Campos 190). Facilities must meet specific standards, such as volumes onsite in the school library, to enhance rankings. Additional money is spent on updating and constructing optional facilities to appeal to applicants, such as fitness centers, in a “prestige race” (Jost 7). A major downside to this continued high tuition is that some demographic groups (such as minority or middle-to-low income students) may be excluded from seeking legal education and jobs, producing lack of diversity in the legal field in general.

In addition to overcharging, many allege that current law school curricula is not producing a sufficient pool of employable students, capable of bearing the expenses incurred while being legally educated (Jost 1, et seq., Campos 4, et seq.) Law school three-year programs do not adequately prepare students for the practice of law as described in school solicitation materials. Schools sometime use inflated numbers when indicating alumni employment as attorneys within a specific time after graduation. Students disenchanted with Cooley Law Schools claims regarding job prospects for its graduates, sued the school, though unsuccessfully (Jost 2). Furthermore, traditional three year programs feature redundancies or unnecessary coursework in the third year, while tuition/loan fees continue to accrue (Jost 16). Also, law schools continue to teach courses in areas for which there is little or no current demand, such as the University of Vermont’s esteemed but little-utilized program in environmental law (Jost 6).

In order to remain relevant, or survive at all, law schools must answer this crisis by reforming legal education. First, schools need to decrease tuition, as Mangan reports have a few schools, such as the University of Arizona and the University of Iowa (1). Alternatively, they can provide financing mechanisms beyond accumulation of student debt to keep applicant pools open to students from all backgrounds and means. Next, to avoid problems such as represented in the Cooley lawsuit, schools should fairly represent job prospects in their solicitation materials. In terms of curricula reform, schools should reconsider the three-year requirement. The third year is often redundant and merely adds to the economic burden of students, although reciprocity standards between state bar associations would need to reevaluated if some schools offered two-year programs while others continued with the traditional three-year degree requirements. Some schools are experimenting with options such as internships in legal aid clinics. Washington and Lee University is experimenting with practical-application third year programs, to satisfy both students and prospective employers demanding more practical-oriented training (Jost 9). Concurrently, subject matter should be reevaluated and updated to emphasize areas of current need, thus enhancing employability of graduates.

Therefore, whether because of a downturn in the economy, reduction of attorney jobs, rising student loan debt due to increasing tuitions or unnecessary time spent in school, today’s aspiring lawyers are facing a losing battle. If they chose to pursue a career in law, they may not find a job that allows them to repay the loans required to obtain a law degree; they may not find a job at all. Law schools shoulder some of the responsibility for this situation. They entice students to apply by expending money to fit ranking criteria, or even providing over-encouraging data. They offer an expensive, three-year program, when a less-costly, two year program may suffice. Their offerings may be outdated to some extent, or not practically-oriented enough to provide adequate legal training. Changes need to be made or students will continue to shy away from law school, leaving only those who can afford high tuitions or loan paybacks to attend. This could result in an inadequate supply of diverse attorneys willing and able to serve the public in a wide array of fields. For the benefit of future attorneys, and their clients, the value of a legal education must correlate to its cost.

  • Campos, Paul. “The Crisis of The American Law School.” University Of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 46.1 (2012): 177-223. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
  • Jost, Kenneth. “Law Schools.” CQ Researcher 19 Apr. 2013: 353-76. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
  • Mangan, Katherine. “As Enrollment Shrinks, Law Schools Make Case For Their Own Value.” Chronicle Of Higher Education 60.18 (2014): A8-A9. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

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