Overselling Law School

Here at Minding the Campus we’ve been elaborating on Charles Murray’s argument that college isn’t for everyone, and that a college degree—which can cost graduates at least four years of forgone earnings and leave them drowning in student-loan debt—isn’t necessarily the ticket to economic prosperity that it’s cracked up to be. So what?, you might say. If my literature degree qualifies me only for working the cash register at Borders, I’ll just go to law school, because everyone knows that lawyers make big bucks.
Dream on. At the early-January annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), Richard Matasar, dean of New York Law School, blasted U.S. law schools, which can cost as much as $120,000 for three years’ worth of tuition for “exploiting” less-than-successful students by taking their money (usually in the form of a loan) and failing to disabuse them of the notion that their degrees will automatically translate into a high-paying job on graduation. It’s common knowledge—at least among lawyers, law professors, and law students with street smarts—that unless your law alma mater is Harvard or a school of that ilk, you’ve got to graduate in the top ten percent of your class in order to get one of those perks-laden white-shoe-firm jobs that will make the sky-high tuition you paid (plus books, living expenses, and three more years of forgone earnings) worth your while. Matasar called the odds of attaining a high enough class ranking to justify the huge expenditures a “lottery shot.”
As for the other ninety percent, they struggle to get some sort of middling-paying law job after graduation that might enable them to retire their loans within some reasonable time before their own retirement, or they never manage to land a law job and drift into something else, or, worst of all, they never even graduate at all–although they still rack up plenty of student debt before they fail their courses or drop out. According to Indiana University law professor William Henderson, who also spoke at the AALS meeting, a survey of fifty law schools revealed that 20 percent of law students either flunked out, couldn’t find jobs after graduation, or had unknown outcomes. Those dismal numbers nonetheless haven’t stopped law schools from admitting, filling classrooms with, and collecting tuition from students whose SAT scores indicate that their chances of forging successful legal careers are dicey at best.


According to a report on the AALS program posted by University of Cincinnati associate dean Paul Caron on TaxProf Blog that was later picked up by the online American Bar Association Journal, Matasar declared that he and his fellow law professors “should be ashamed of ourselves.” He continued, “We own our students’ outcomes. We took them. We took their money. We live on their money….And if they don’t have a good outcome in life, we’re exploiting them.”
Nearly simultaneously with the ABA Journal report came “The Great College Hoax,” a cover story in Forbes magazine that focused on a lawyer-couple, Joel Kellum and Jennifer Coultas, who had graduated in 1995 with $195,000 in combined student debt from the California Western School of Law in San Diego, which is accredited by the American Bar Association but is a lower-tier school if there ever was one. The two landed enviable six-figure-paying jobs after graduation, but fourteen years, two children, and several rounds of unemployment and other career bumps later, they had managed to pay back only $21,000 of their loans’ principal, and the financial stress had led to a divorce (student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, so they can’t be made to go away, and many lenders charge loan fees and hefty variable-rate interest that call to mind factors in the subprime mortgage crisis).
The biggest losers in the lottery of law-school success are black and Hispanic students, many of whom are already out of their intellectual league and doomed to low class standing because of the perverse effects of affirmative action. In a 113-page statistical study published in the Stanford Law Review in 2004 (not online but reported on in detail by the National Journal’s Stuart Taylor), UCLA law professor Richard Sander argued that racial preferences that admit less qualified black and Hispanic students into higher-tier law schools than they would qualify for under colorblind admissions policies harmed those students more than it helped them.
About fifty percent of underqualified black law students ended up in the bottom tenth of their classes and two-thirds in the bottom fifth. More than 43 percent of entering black students never became lawyers, either because they dropped or flunked out of law school (nineteen percent), failed to pass bar exams, or couldn’t find work, Sander found. In a 2006 Stanford Law Review article (also summarized by Taylor) Sander pointed out that even when prestigious law firms continue to give minority students a boost via affirmative-action hiring, the young law graduates with lower grades than their white and Asian counterparts continue to fare poorly. Only one out of eight new black hires make partner, for example, Sander found, probably because their employers tiptoe around the relative lack of qualifications of many of them by giving them less demanding, less desirable assignments that eventually lead them to leave their firms “discouraged and embittered,” as Taylor summed it up.
The upshot of all of this is that admission to law school is no guarantee of a good job, much less a lasting good job. And students seem to be catching onto this fact of life, New York Law School’s Matasar said at the AALS meeting. Noting that registrations for the law school admissions test are flat or below the norm this year, Matasar said, “Maybe the chance at being in the top 10 percent is not a good enough lottery shot in order to effectively spend $120,000 and see it blow up.”

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