Sunday, May 22, 2011

Information About Law Schools, Circa 1960: The Cost of Attending

Brian Tamanaha

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) produced a comprehensive study of law schools in the late 1950s, sending detailed surveys to 129 law schools, with a 90% response rate. Here are a few interesting tidbits about the cost of attending law school:

Median annual tuition and fees at private law schools was $475 (range $50-$1050); adjusted for inflation, that's $3,419 in 2011 dollars. The median for public law schools was $204 (range $50 - $692), or $1,550 in 2011 dollars. [For comparison, in 2009 the private law school median was $36,000; the public (resident) median was $16,546.]

The report expressed concern about cost: "The cost of attending law school at least doubled in the [past] 16 years..., raising the question whether able, but impecunious, students are being directed away from law study."

14% of students received scholarship aid; just over half of this aid was for "scholastic performance" (merit scholarships to attract top students) and the remainder for "economic need."

To provide additional financial support, the great bulk of law schools had loan funds, which were used "in a good many schools in smoothing the financial path of numerous students." However, almost half of the schools reported that students were reluctant to take out loans owing to "fear of debts, particularly during the low income years immediately after graduation."

Schools at the time were swiftly moving away from merit based scholarships. "The dean of one large and famous law school dissented vigorously from the idea of buying highly qualified students by scholarships, apart from need." The Report observed:

Competitive bidding for top students has been abandoned or minimized as the colleges have shifted to the policy of grants only in case of need and limited to extent of need....The spiraling cost of competitive bidding was enough of a nightmare to persuade the stubborn, and the waste of funds by scholarships to many who did not need them while deserving students lost a chance of an education was intolerable. The rapidity of the retreat from that form of recruitment is perhaps the strongest evidence of its evils, and the testimony comes from full experience.


Do you have any ideas as to why the costs have soared? (I take it that law schools are not spending heavily on fancy gyms.)

Good to see you survived Doomsday.

Thanks, CTS. One of these days doomsday will be upon us, but yesterday seemed safe. Fate enjoys making predictions of the end days look silly.

In partial answer to your question, I'll soon post about faculty compensation and workload, then and now. Another answer is that scholarship budgets have increased substantially, almost entirely in the form of merit scholarships.

That's why I put in the final paragraph. Merit scholarships have perverse effects. The bottom half of the class (coming in) subsidizes the top. Little is left for need based scholarships. Schools don't benefit because they engage in a costly arms race (in effect, a redistribution among students to the benefit of those with better incoming credentials), which leaves all schools in the same relative position.

Or to put it differently, tuition would be lower for everyone across the board (hence more equitable), and schools would have the same relative student profiles, if schools did not compete for students with merit scholarships.

That's only part of the explanation. I'll post the faculty stuff soon.


I was graduated from a Boston area law school in 1954. The tuition for that third year was $400. As I recall, Harvard Law School tuition was $500 that year. Law school was doable without student loans - and I do not recall too many scholarships. A student could work summers and holidays and still be claimed as a parent's tax dependent, with frugality saving much towards tuition and books if living at home with parents and commuting. The two largest law firms in Boston (other than insurance law firms) were Hale & Dorr and Ropes & Gray, with partner ranges each of 10-12; associates were not generally listed on letterheads but the ratio was probably 1 associate for every 3-4 partners. After passing the MA bar that same year, I noticed it was sort of a "blood sport" for recently minted lawyers to lament about too many lawyers when subsequents groups were admitted. Of course the growth continued as legal work grew alongside with technology advances resulting in the mega-national/international law firms of recent years (despite the impacts of the Bush/Cheney 2008 Great Recession). I'm reminded of the Miss Peach comic strip of yesteryear by Mel that featured grade school Arthur at the podium with the banner "Future Lawyers of America Meet Here" pronouncing "My ambition in life is to sue every man, woman and child in America." [That's as close as I recall the words.] A photocopy of that strip was framed and hung on the wall of my law office for several decades as a reminder of the growth of the legal field. Might Schumpeter's creative destructionism apply to the law?

Brian, I did not note a link to the AALS survey study in your post. I'm interested since it covers the period I spent in law school.


The Report is published as Anatomy of Modern Legal Education (1961). It covers the time when you were in law school--so should be especially interesting for you.


The problem with the argument is that they very top law schools aren't generally competing for students with merit scholarships. (Perhaps a handful of students, but not enough to change their pricing model.) And I doubt Harvard or Yale would be setting their tuition and fees based on what lower tier schools charge.

So even if all schools stopped competitive bidding, you'd still have 10-15 schools with their current pricing model which isn't explained away by your explanation. The other 185-190 schools would likely still price quite high so as to signal the quality of the education they offer.

Really interesting post, Brian. I had no idea that study was done. A couple of thoughts:

1) This is a higher education phenomenon, not a law school phenomenon. I don't have the data, but I'll wager the cost of college, business school, and med school has increased proportionally;

2) The possibility exists, and I know there is deep skepticism about this, that law schools are providing an education that is much better than in the fifties, and is thus worth significantly more. It is certainly the case, for example, that students get vastly more skills training and live client experience today than they used to;

3) On the topic of faculty salaries and teaching loads: Faculty who teach classes of 70-80 students are very efficient, and so can be paid well with a small cost per student. On the other hand, clinics are inefficient, and cost a lot per student. My guess is that the growth in clinics (and in administrative staffs) is a bigger cost driver than salaries and teaching loads for tenured faculty. Of course, clinics provide the kinds of training that make law school a much better experience today than it was 50 years ago.

I am not saying that law school is properly priced, but I do think this a very complex topic, and I'd be hesitant to assume that law school cost increases are solely or mostly a function of law professor greed.

We will have to wait for further installments here, but, in response to one poster, I doubt that we have seen much in improvement in teaching over that time. For one thing, it seems that a lot of tenure track faculty are hired for their ability to publish, and not their ability to actually teach. Also, a lot of schools seem to hire based on political correctness - a lesbian here to offset the Asian over there. And, the result, again, is less emphasis on teaching ability, in comparison with other things.

Lest you think that this later is of minor effect, keep in mind that outside of core courses, and even then for some of them, the students to some extent pick classes based on who is teaching it. And, a result of that is that the weaker teachers often end up with the smallest classes. This would be fine, if they were paid accordingly, but they are not. Rather, there are many instances where the better teachers are teaching several times as many students, but earning comparable, or even lower, salaries.

So, what you end up with, it seems, are professors teaching very small classes in esoteric or unuseful subjects earning as much as the profs teaching large classes in useful subjects. But they have to keep those uneconomical profs around, since otherwise their PC quotient would suffer, and the school would appear to have less diversity.

Lest you think that this is limited to law school, I attended a small liberal arts college starting in 1968, where the tuition was either $1200 a year or a semester. It now costs about $50k a year to attend there. Back then, I knew people who could earn enough over the summer to cover tuition and most of their room and board. And, they still had enough left over to pay fraternity dues.

The problem is not really a law school bubble, but rather, a college bubble, with LS being just one example of it.

That's why I put in the final paragraph. Merit scholarships have perverse effects.

Ahh. I'm looking forward to your further posts. I wonder about the extent to which undergraduate and pro-school rises in cost are attributable to similar causes.

(I suppose I should apologize for congratulating you on surviving Doomsday rather than consoling you on not being 'raptured.')

Shag from Brookline said...

I was

Bless you. :-)

"However, almost half of the schools reported that students were reluctant to take out loans owing to 'fear of debts, particularly during the low income years immediately after graduation.'"

Professor Tamanaha, do you know what information law students of the 1950s relied on to evaluate their future incomes as attorneys?

In response to LSTB, back in the spring of 1954 when I was taking a bar review course in my final year of law school, I came in contact with students from the five law schools in the Boston/Cambridge area. We would talk about what we planned to do if and when admitted to the bar of MA. From my first year on to graduation, I had information as to the efforts of upper class men in their efforts to practice law following graduation and admission to the bar. Some of us had draft deferments delaying our plans. Many made an arrangement with a practicing attorney exchanging services for office space, etc, while trying to establish a practice by getting involved in politics, communities, etc, for connections for potential clients. A few were fortunate enough to have a parent or relative with a good law practice to pay a fairly decent salary. But as I noted in an earlier comment, there were very few opportunities with law firms, and the prestigious law firms looked to top graduates from top law schools. Some became assistant DAs or AGs, learning on the job. Some were confident enough to just start a practice by renting office space, including in a store front or a second floor office with large windows spelling out that the occupant was an attorney and a notary public. Some joined collection law firms doing scut work or became insurance adjustors hoping that might lead to the legal department of the insurance company.

Most focused on general practice, which included personal injuries, divorce, wills, probate work, real estate, etc. There were not many convenient routes to specialization back then. A young attorney in private practice would rely upon family, relatives, friends, etc, and their referrals. Eventually one would find a niche as a general practitioner, perhaps with a specialty in litigation, civil and/or criminal. Like Topsy, a law practice just growed, hopefully. Sometimes a stroke of luck would provide success, as with a client generating good publicity. I know several stories, including my own, of such good luck. Yes, being in the right place at the right time was important; but then, one had to do the right thing.

As for evaluating future income, that was seat of the pants, back of the envelope calculations, in the course of trying to establish a practice, with some good and some bad months. As an office associate back then used to tell his clients inquiring as to the status of personal injury cases of the recipe for Muskrat Stew: "First you've got to catch the Muskrat." We didn't think in terms of hourly rates back then so much. Rather, there were minimum fee schedules (latter determined to be illegal) used as a guide, tempered (usually downward) by the competition, of which there was plenty.

I do not recall any of my classmates taking out formal loans. Most of us were commuter students. The few others would get part time jobs and not eat so well. The 1950s was a continuation of the post WW II growth of the legal profession As the economy boomed here in MA with Route 128 technology firms in the 1950s-1960s many legal opportunities opened up, starting a change that became more remunerative, including for me. The practice of law seemed to explode in the 1970s on, with a few recessions here and there, which were survived. I'm basically in retirement now, but this Bush/Cheney 2008 Great Recession has had a severe impact on the legal profession that may result in changes in law firm models. Law school can still provide an opportunity to grab the brass ring, but perhaps for fewer and fewer. Which brings me back to my earlier comment:

"Might Schumpeter's creative destructionism apply to the law?"

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