Phi Beta Cons

“The Legal Academy just got lambasted by the paper of record”

So says Indiana University law professor William Henderson in this post on The Legal Whiteboard. He’s referring to an editorial in the Oct. 25 New York Times which highlighted the problems at for-profit Florida Coastal Law School, “but goes on to note that the rest of legal education is not much better.”

Remarkably, the Times seems to see the bad consequences that come from easy federal money for law school. Professor Henderson certainly does. The easy money available to law students via Direct Plus Loans has led to what he terms “the precarious financial condition of legal education.” Lots of marginal students are racking up huge debts in their quest for law degrees that won’t lead to employment for many. Too many JDs chasing a dwindling number of jobs.

The solution advanced by the Times is a half-way kind of measure — putting a cap on the amount students can borrow ($29K per year). Even that, Henderson observes, would have a dramatic impact on law school finances. Private lenders wouldn’t make up much of the loss, meaning a sharp reduction in enrollments. The pain wouldn’t be felt only by the lower-tier law schools, but would affect the elite too.

Henderson advocates that the Association of American Law Schools take a leadership position — a delegation to “help” the Department of Education outline the systemic problems in higher education generally, articulate sound policy and formulate a sustainable solution.

Well, go right ahead, but we need change far more radical than anything that would emerge from any such delegation. I doubt that anyone of influence in the AALS is daring enough to point out that subsidization always leads to overproduction. We have too many law schools employing too many professors and the only way to get back to the optimal numbers is to allow the market to work. Pull the plug on federal aid for law students. As a result, we’ll have far fewer of them, some law schools will go out of business, many law profs will have to find other work (and I bet the first to go will be those who teach the tendentious, politically saturated courses), and many others will have to work for less money.

Just as was the case with the housing industry, easy money has led to a bloated legal academy that wastes resources. Let the market correction begin.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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