Late last summer, Dean Bryant G. Garth asked Southwestern University School of Law’s newest entering class members if they had a friend or relative share a New York Times article exposing the financial risks of going to law school.
“Every person raised their hand,” Garth recalled.
The front-page story last January focused national attention on a rising chorus of complaints by law students that schools had suckered them into taking on huge debt with false promises of six-figure salaries immediately upon graduation.
Those complaints went on last year to spark several lawsuits, new rules from the American Bar Association’s accreditation arm and demands from U.S. senators for answers. …
“When the market for lawyers is good … there’s less stress in legal education,” said Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of the UCI School of Law. “At a time when the market is bad, there’s more stress in legal education.”
But others say the source of the problems lies deeper.
“I think that law students and the public are starting to take a good, hard look at legal education in this country for the better,” said Brian A. Procel of Miller Barondess LLP, who is suing San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law under consumer protection laws. “They’re just starting to realize this industry is not being run correctly.”
Vanderbilt law graduate and blogger Kyle P. McEntee said his nonprofit, called “Law School Transparency,” is exploring a number of alternative models, such as having more classes taught by part-time adjunct professors – practicing lawyers – who would command lower salaries.
Underlying all the complaints is concern over the accuracy of schools’ employment data.
Many schools report that 80 percent to 90 percent of graduates have jobs nine months after graduation, earning a median salary of $160,000. But those numbers can be misleading. …
And as McEntee and his colleagues have shown, only a small percentage of a school’s graduates may actually earn $160,000. The figure qualifies as the statistical median because only the graduates with good jobs tend to report their pay to their schools – a fact [Susan Westerberg Prager, the former UCLA law dean who now heads the Association of American Law Schools], said means employment data is “inherently flawed.” …
The uproar also prompted California Sen. Barbara Boxer and two of her Republican colleagues to write letters to the ABA and the Department of Education demanding improvements.
In response to the transparency movement, U.S. News & World Report took steps in 2011 to post greater detail about law graduates’ employment.
The ABA Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, which accredits law schools, is beginning to collect detailed annual graduate employment data directly from schools rather than second-hand from the National Association for Law Placement.
But even that effort generated controversy in the fall when the ABA said it would drop questions for the class of 2010 about how many graduates had jobs requiring bar admission or preferring a law degree. The committee said it would bring back the questions for the class of 2011 but needed more time to thrash out the definition of “preferred.” …
Critics have latched onto job data because of the high cost of legal education. At Thomas Jefferson, tuition is about $40,000 a year, and the average graduate’s debt is $135,000. Nationally, law graduates’ average debt load is about $100,000, and some new lawyers carry $200,000.
“That’s too much to pay for an education,” McEntee said. …
All of the bad news has begun to trickle down to potential students. …
“I actually think one of the tragedies of this is the number of people who are deciding not to go to law school now,” the AALS chief said. “I happen to believe that legal education is a great, broad education … in which you develop skills that are useful in many, many other realms.”
This is a good synopsis of the last year in legal education. We expect scrutiny to be just as critical and widespread in 2012.