Bench Memos

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The Law-School Tuition Scam?


On Balkinization, law professor Brian Tamanaha has an interesting and provocative post titled “Wake Up, Fellow Law Professors, to the Casualties of Our Enterprise.”  Tamanaha decries the huge recent increases in law-school tuition and the associated “lack of candor on the part of law schools” about the realistic earning prospects that their graduates will have as they try to pay off the massive debts that they’ve incurred.  He opines that recent graduates who complain that “non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods”—he links to numerous blogs—“make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.”  Here’s how he summarizes their case:

Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can’t get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.

And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for thirty years.…

The law graduates posting on these sites know the score. They know that law schools pad their employment figures—96% employed—by counting as “employed” any job at all, legal or non-legal, including part time jobs, including unemployed graduates hired by the school as research assistants (or by excluding unemployed graduates “not currently seeking” a job, or by excluding graduates who do not supply employment information). They know that the gaudy salary numbers advertised on the career services page—“average starting salary $125,000 private full time employment”—are actually calculated based upon only about 25% of the graduating class (although you can’t easily figure this out from the information provided by the schools).…

They know the score now. But they didn’t know it when they first applied to law school. They bought into the numbers provided by law schools. The mission of these sites is to educate, to warn away, the incoming crop of prospective law students—to save them from becoming victims of the law school scam.

Tamanaha adds that in the current economic environment even graduates of elite law schools “are not immune.”  Perhaps it’s a sign of how long it’s been since I was in law school, but I find his cost figures staggering:

Law school tuition has tripled in just 15 years. Annual tuition at Yale, Columbia, and Berkeley will likely top $50,000 by next year. Add $20,000 per year in living expenses, and the total cost of becoming a lawyer at these institutions will be $210,000.


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