Monday, June 18, 2012

Failing Law Schools

Brian Tamanaha

My critical book about legal education, Failing Law Schools, is out. About a dozen advance reviews of the book have been published, each with different take, but all in agreement that the book should be read by legal educators. (A few examples: Fish, Kerr, and Henderson.). This recent comment captures the thrust of the book:

I just finished reading a book that everyone who cares about legal education in the United States should read: Failing Law Schools by Brian Z. Tamanaha. The book does an excellent job of describing the economic realities of law schools for prospective law students and society as a whole. Tamanaha gives a compelling and highly critical analysis of how law school became so expensive, and what can be done about it now. And, he doesn’t pull punches. If the law school you went to wasn’t mentioned, the law school you teach at, or that your colleagues went to will be named (and shamed). Tamanaha is critical of law schools and law professors from the top 14 to the 4th Tier and every school in between.

For those of us who went to law school before it became so expensive, Tamanaha does an excellent job of breaking down what it means to graduate with $100,000 or $120,000 in student loans for the average law student with the average salary of around $70,000. He also lays out the statistics about how difficult it is, and will probably continue to be, for many law graduates to find full time work as lawyers. This is a situation that Tamanaha argues will continue well past the time when the economy recovers. Tamanaha also describes the shift from needs-based to merit-based scholarships that has, among other problems, made it even tougher for lower income law students to attend law school without high debt. (ADR Prof Blog)

Many legal educators will disagree with my arguments, of course, and I do not claim to know how to solve what I call the "broken economics of legal education." Indeed, things are so out of whack that I doubt we will solve it. But we must at least begin to grapple with these issues rather than ignore them.

The opening comment of Bill Henderson's review was the most jarring observation I have seen so far: "Many legal academics are going to dismiss Brian Tamanaha's book, Failing Law Schools, without ever reading a page. A larger number may simply ignore it. That is ironic, because this is the response one would expect if Tamanaha's account of a corrupt, self-indulgence academic culture were true." I hope Bill is wrong.

What I have tried to do with this book is bring solid data to the debate. I am struck by the fact that the defenders of the legal education status quo so often respond with unverified assumptions, sweeping generalizations, or old platitudes or anecdotes.

In an article on the book today in the National Law Journal, for example, the Chair of the ABA Section on Legal Education, John O'Brien, remarks critically, "Nobody feels good that tuitions have gone up. But the claim that a law degree is a bad investment doesn't hold water." My precise argument is that a law degree is a good investment for some students, but for many it is a financial disaster.

To see what I mean we need look no further than Dean O'Brien's own institution, New England School of Law. Nine months after graduation, only 34.4% of the 2011 class had obtained full time, permanent lawyer jobs (see ABA data broken down here). The average debt for 2011 NE law grads was $120,480 (90% of the class had debt). NE claims that the median salary in the private sector for the class of 2010 was $67,500, but only 15% of the grads in private employment reported their salaries so the actual median salary for the class is undoubtedly much lower. People who earn that much will struggle to make the monthly payments ($1,400) due on the average debt. (Meanwhile, Dean O'Brien received $781,710 in total compensation in 2009.)

This is what the book does--it brings numbers to the debate about legal education. I talk about professor teaching loads and salaries, the costs of research and clinics, the remarkable rise of tuition and debt, the salaries our graduates earn at graduation and a few years out, the implications of the transfer phenomenon, the social consequences of our scholarship policies, the ongoing collapse in applicants, and much more.

If you care about the fate of our students, about the fate of your own law school (many will be in trouble), or about legal education more generally and its impact on the legal system and society, the information in this book will be sobering. Unfortunately, the situation today is even worse than what I set out because there is a lag in the data and most of my numbers are from 2009 and 2010 (the book was completed 6 months ago)--the 2011 debt and job numbers for law graduates have deteriorated markedly.


I haven't read the book yet. But seeing a snippet in here somehow attracts me to buy and read more of your topic. Furthermore, it will really gives legal enthusiast more affinity for the topics which you mostly based on reality.

Beyond law school students as consumers, there is the consuming public that from time to time is in need of competent legal services. When law schools fail, the public pays a big price. Maybe there are too many law schools, too many law students, too many lawyers, but without competent lawyers available to provide the required legal services, our society suffers. So the problems laid out by Brian in his book impact all Americans, not just those in legal education/profession. While America is a government of laws and not of men (and women), competent lawyers are required to make sure laws work. So it is important for our law schools to succeed and provide the foundation for competent attorneys to serve the public. The current situation did not occur overnight and will take a lot of time to remedy. Hopefully Brian's message will resonate to the general public and its interest in a sound legal profession. If legal education/profession fails to act, might it invite interventions such as was the case with the medical profession? So heal thyself.


I just finished your book and it was an eye-opener. As you say, the numbers are compelling. Vast changes are coming to the legal market and by necessity to the law school market. Putting one's head in the sand is not an effective response.

I must also note that your book reminded me, as a new law professor, of nothing so much as Grisham's "The Firm." Is it necessary to explain why?

For an article on the potential commodification of the practice of law, see Jordan Weissmann's The Atlantic "iLawyers: What Happens When Computers Replace Attorneys?" with the subtitle: "After decades of killing low-end jobs in retail, software is finally doing the people's bidding by creating a world with fewer lawyers." (A link is provided at The Tax Lawyer Blog.)

A review of Robert Schiller's new book in Sunday's NYTimes Book Review states that Israel and Brazil have more lawyers per capita than America. Perhaps comparatives on legal education in those nations might be interesting.

A lot of oversimplification in the article. One of the biggest reasons for tuition increases at law schools at public universities is that the amount of state funding. or the lack of it. State law school I went to in the late 1980's state covered 75% of law schools costs, tuition, about 25%. Now the law school gets no funding from the state. This translates into a 300% increase in tuition, even if the school had kept its operating costs fixed for the last 25 years.

The article makes no comparison of tuition increases in law schools versus other advanced degree programs. Is it higher or lower than for other programs.

Also the article does not compare employment rates now versus in the past. Back when I graduated a significant portion of graduates did not go into law, about 20% went into other professions, most of which utilized the legal training but were not "lawyers".
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