But I Have All This Debt

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I’ve been developing a theory for awhile about what the structure and composition of lawyers at a typical BigLaw firm may look like in future, and how it’s evolved already, and now that The New York Times has made it official that law school applications are plummeting, it’s timely to bring the two together and talk about why anyone in their right mind would want to go to law school today.

First the Times story, because once a phenomenon makes the front page of the Times it’s all but universally recognized as true (as Paul Campos says, it achieves ontological truth) even if it hadn’t penetrated the universal consciousness just yet.

Now, for those of us who’ve been following the remarkable spread of the recognition that law school-except for the top students at the top schools-has become a very bad bargain indeed, with costs wildly out of proportion with benefits, this is extremely welcome news. Indeed, the Times article comes close to being a public service.

But just to quickly rehearse what’s wrong with law school for the great bulk of current and prospective students: It saddles hem with nondischargeable debt on the order of $150,000 in exchange for dismal job prospects. If you want a complete, chapter-and-verse, recitation of the bill of particulars against law schools today, there’s no more comprehensive source than Washington University School of Law Professor Brian Tamanaha’s Failing Law Schools.

Here are the numbers, from the Times:

Law school applications are headed for a 30-year low, reflecting increased concern over soaring tuition, crushing student debt and diminishing prospects of lucrative employment upon graduation.

As of this month, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Of some 200 law schools nationwide, only 4 have seen increases in applications this year. In 2004 there were 100,000 applicants to law schools; this year there are likely to be 54,000.

Such startling numbers have plunged law school administrations into soul-searching debate about the future of legal education and the profession over all.

“We are going through a revolution in law with a time bomb on our admissions books,” said William D. Henderson, a professor of law at Indiana University, who has written extensively on the issue. “Thirty years ago if you were looking to get on the escalator to upward mobility, you went to business or law school. Today, the law school escalator is broken.”

This graphic tells the story  more vividly than any words:

Those who follow the industry, even in the shallowest fashion, have seen widespread coverage of the cost/benefit mismatch in going to law school for the past few years:  The indispensable Paul Campos has been producing a running commentary on developments, while even the Gray Lady has produced hard-hitting stories for some time.  Here’s the problem in a nutshell—not that law school is worthless, but that the investment required and the payoff delivered have gotten totally out of whack:

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  1. […] low–20% less than last year’s and 38% below 2010. And according to one commentator:  "Even more interesting… is that the drop in applications has been […]


  1. JMR, 3 years ago Reply

    I hope a good number of law schools go bankrupt. Law schools are a business that benefit few. Career services at most schools are deplorable and are filled with people who no little about securing that important first job. I feel for the kids who are graduating now, but it’s not too late for applicants to opt for another career. It’s better taking a year off making minimum wage at McDonalds than committing to law school and a lifetime of debt

  2. MidRange guy, 3 years ago Reply

    I’m doubtless leaving out some of the costs, but suppose you wanted to operate a law school as a standalone, with 200 students in a class (600 total), and without expecting the faculty to publish. The freshman class has 2 sections of 100 (about 30 class-hours/week combined), the 2nd-years have four sections of 50 (60 class-hours/week), and the 3rd years each get to take 2 small-group seminars (20 students each, so 10 sections, or 30 class-hours/week) and 2 classes in groups of 50 (so 4 sections, or about 50 class-hours/week). Add on 30 class-hours/week for legal writing and that’s about 200 class-hours/week of teaching. 20 faculty teaching 10 hours each cover that: $120,000 each makes $2,400,000 for faculty salaries. Add $400,000 for library staff, $500,000 for administration including admissions, $150,000 for janitorial, $400,000 for other support services, and $250,000 for development/fundraising for a total staff cost of about $4,100,000/year. Estimate rent or occupancy cost at $500,000/year (corresponding to about a $6 million campus, no dormitories), and $250,000 for library publications and subscriptions, for a total budget approaching $5 million/year. Divided among 600 students yields a tuition of about $9000/year, not including room and board. Whatever I’m missing in figuring what it takes to run a law school that does nothing but teach law, it can’t be $40,000/student/year worth of expenses.

  3. legaltruth, 2 years ago Reply

    I believe if the recession continues and corporations remain committed to not return to business as usual, ie the billable hour and paying for associates, then many law schools will fail. Lawyers have an extreme aversion to changing how they operate and when they are under the gun to do so they still take too long in coming to a clear decision of how to do so. Much of their profession is based on defending the clients interests through oral argument, logical reasoning, and persuasive writing. Is it really hard to see why it would take them so long to come to a clear decision with many of them in the same room trying to make the decision together, its a constant battle and they fight bitterly for their own agenda’s.

    I think we will see legal innovations taking much of the legal space away from the professionals. There are a few countries, England as the most recent, that liberalized the profession allowing non-lawyer investment and partnership. There will be great developments from this in England which I predict will spread Globally. Whether the ABA changes the rules or not, we will see a difference as to how the law is practiced, it just might be from our allies abroad then from our own US legal profession.

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