Monday, March 28, 2011

Law school is not a pretty business

At this point, everybody seems to realize the ongoing breakdown in US legal education: too few jobs, too many law schools. The end result: tens of thousands of law students every year are left awash in debt, with no realistic chance of ever paying it off.

In the meantime, new law schools are opening every year, presumably because they're reliable cash cows, bringing in students willing to pay twenty to forty thousand without a second thought.

The dynamics are clear enough: the cultural cachet of having a law degree has overwhelmed the ability of law school applicants to make realistic choices about whether to attend law school, and more specifically, where to attend law school. This market failure has been exacerbated by the schools themselves, which have consistently overstated or misrepresented their employment statistics (for instance: the University of Minnesota apparently claims to have ninety-nine percent employment nine months after graduation over the past five years; speaking as an UMN student currently pursuing employment, I'd sooner believe that Barack Obama was raised in Kenya as a sleeper agent). Convinced of their ability to pull in six-figure salaries -- often unavailable to students even at the best law schools -- applicants can't be dissuaded from attending lousy programs, often graduating with hundreds of thousands in loans.

I'll admit it's a problem that holds a particular fascination for me. Beyond the obvious effect that the development of the legal profession has on my life, there's a trainwreck quality to it all that's hard to ignore. There's something just so unbelievably sordid about the way business is done at lower tier schools: admit unqualified students with promises of prestige and wealth, kick out a good third of them after a semester or two (no refunds, of course), and then throw the remainder out into a jobless environment two years later. Laugh all the way to the bank. The very worst law schools, at this point, seem like little more than well-run pyramid schemes, taking in millions from hopeful investors in exchange for an unfulfillable promise of financial success. The people running these schools understand the importance of image and salesmanship in driving students into law school; that's why, for instance, they farm so many of their ill-begotten dollars back into impressive-looking facilities. Like this eight-story steel-and-glass monstrosity, including a law library that resembles the bridge of the Enterprise, airy spiral staircases, what appears to be some sort of indoor nature conservatory, and -- I'm not kidding -- rooftop terraces overlooking San Diego.* How could a school with a building like that not be prestigious? How could its alumni not be wealthy? But it certainly isn't, and they're certainly not. It really is naked charlatanism.

Legal education likes to cloak itself in an aura of history and gravitas. Nothing quite rips off that cloak like the realization that around one-third of current law students are being more-or-less defrauded as we speak. No matter how high-minded their intellectual pursuits, all the luminaries of modern legal education are splashing around ankle-deep in a sewer of straightforward exploitation. Still, given all the hoopla around the top fifty-odd schools, it's little wonder that everyone forgets (or would rather forget) that there are one hundred and fifty more, pulling in thousands upon thousands of students, and often intent on draining those students of every last drop. After all, if you're in a position to address the problem, you've probably managed to avoid it altogether, and as far as you're concerned, you're of a different breed than the graduates of Thomas M. Cooley School of Law. In a lot of ways, you're right! Your understanding of what legal education does and how it works is totally different than it ever will be for many of these people. But it nonetheless seems to me that the time has come for something to be done. Even if you believe that the plight of vulnerable students is not worth addressing, the respectability of the profession is being threatened. While the best law schools today will likely always be the best law schools, it's becoming increasingly apparent that they're simply the best of a very seedy pile.

So what is being done? Not enough. I'm going to save my thoughts on solutions for another post, but suffice to say, the most popular approaches seem to be more geared towards insulating schools from blame than towards actually preventing students from destroying their lives. Unless we want "buyer beware" to become a maxim of legal education, we've got to find a new direction.

*If I sound a little bit jealous, well, check out OUR rooftop terrace. Keep in mind that this is among the most well-lit and architecturally interesting parts of the school.

1 comment:

  1. wait.... you mean to excel in the legal arena you now have work your ass off like every other gainful opportunity has been for eons? To me you sound as if either you, or someone close to you, racked up a 1/4 million in law school debt & failed to make it out of law school, let alone pass the bar. I'm
    1st yr law student making damn good $ in summer internship, I love the law & would be satisfied practicing making what I am now. While I agree with your feelings that dishonest admission tactics as to job prospects are abhorrent, I'm certain half your facts are wrong. I know approx. 10 fresh (less than 3yrs out) attys & all make 10k/yr more than the majority of my engineer laden family.