By: Tucker Green
Ten years ago, if an undergraduate said he or she was planning on attending law school, a number of images instantly sprang to mind. Fancy suits, six-figure salaries, courtroom drama, long law school hours, and undeniable prestige.
Today, if an undergraduate says the same thing, he or she might politely be asked if they would like to visit a psychiatrist.
Viewed collectively, the legal academy is a booming business. Revenues have increased as law school tuition continues to climb at unprecedented rates. Law schools earn so much revenue that they are able to pay their faculty at higher median rates than any other discipline in higher education, and some law schools are in such sound financial positions that they are called to surrender up to 30% of their profits to subsidize other parts of campuses. Admission numbers have fallen since the onset of the Great Recession, but not nearly enough to curtail a flow of money that would make other businesses and higher education institutions jealous.
And yet these facts belie a confounding truth: the legal academy is associated with terrible business practices. For one, several law schools have been sued for misleading potential students and recruiters with false admissions data. Law schools in California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, and New York, among others, have come under fire for inflating LSAT numbers, engaging in manipulative employment information, and fudging salary data. They do so primarily to placate the all-important U.S. News rankings, which hold a totalitarian grip on the flow of information regarding law school prestige and value. But offering such deceptive data in an effort to maintain “prestige” amounts to outright lying. In the corporate world, such manipulation ranges from unethical to illegal and has been the downfall of a number of enterprises. And yet the problem continues to pervade the legal academy. As Indiana law professor Bill Henderson acknowledged, “Enron-type accounting standards have become the norm [among law schools]. Every time I look at this data, I feel dirty.”
That’s the least of the problems associated with legal education. Due to a changing and weakened legal market, the glitzy dream of grabbing a J.D. and waltzing into a six-figure salary is long gone. Even worse, law students are graduating with unprecedented levels of debt. Today’s average law students leave school with debt of $68,827 at public schools and $106,249 at private schools; those with dreams of making it to the hallowed Ivy League for law school will pay even more.
These factors combine to make the J.D. a far less attractive option to undergraduates than ever before. Yes, there are those with an unbridled passion for practicing law. For them, attending law school is and should still be the right choice. Yet for others, the combination of a malfeasant legal academy and the bothersome prospects of entering an uncertain legal industry render attending law school a terrifying choice.
What can be done? For one, standards for law schools’ reporting of data must be updated and strongly enforced. (Thankfully, the ABA and LSAC have shown signs of moving in this direction). Additionally, law school pedagogy must be improved. While the legal world is changing, law schools have stood stubbornly firm in their tired and old-fashioned curricula. Often, law graduates must undergo intensive training when they take jobs at large firms to learn the basics of signing contracts and closing deals, skills which should be cemented in law school in the first place. Thirdly, the problem of spiraling law school tuition must be addressed. Daunting debt numbers are turning away potentially talented lawyers that could bring fresh insight and skill into a legal industry in flux. But with $150,000 in debt staring you down the throat, how does a student rationalize giving up three years of their life to enter an intimidating job market?
The common refrain is that “law school is about teaching one how to become a lawyer.” As it stands now, law school teaches one to think about becoming something else.