WU law professor questions value of law school
High salaries and renowned status are benefits associated with law school that have typically motivated students to endure the stress required to earn a high GPA and high LSAT scores.
But with the number of law school applications falling due to rising tuition and decreasing job prospects after graduation, these long-standing associations may soon disappear.
The average tuition of private law schools increased from $23,000 in 2001 to $40,500 in 2012, according to a Jan. 30 story in The New York Times. Yet only 55 percent of the law graduates in the class of 2011 landed jobs that required passage of the bar exam within nine months of graduation.
The severe contraction in the legal markets since 2008 caused many law firms to hire only half as many graduates as before. Meanwhile, the average debt of a private law school graduate reached $125,000 in 2011.
“The cost of a law degree today exceeds the economic deterrent that many students are paying,” said Brian Tamanaha, a professor at the Washington University School of Law and the author of a new book called “Failing Law Schools,” published in 2012.
Because fewer people are seeking legal degrees, many law schools are planning to reduce their sizes.
“We cannot accept everyone because we have quality control standards, so we will see what happens,” Tamanaha said.
While the job placement statistics among law school graduates are often unavailable or exaggerated, the media’s increasing coverage of this topic has made the numbers more available to the public.
“For some time law schools were puffing up their employment numbers that they advertise in the US News Magazine, so this gave a misimpression to people,” Tamanaha said. “A lot of schools were playing 90 percent employment and high salaries, but many of those figures did not reflect the actual reality. The number of applicants is falling sharply. That is because there is more public awareness now that law schools are a risky proposition.”
“There have been reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, so the mainstream media has picked up on the fact that there are many people not coming out with good results,” he added.
The dimming aura of law schools includes top-ranked institutions.
“Every law school is being affected by this because we have less money coming in so schools are making cuts in their expenses as best they can. Now there will be some schools that probably will close,” Tamanaha said. “Even the very best ones will be cutting their expenses going forward.”
He said the Washington University School of Law is not exempt from this nationwide trend.
“Our enrollment is shrinking…our applicants are going down,” Tamanaha said. “We are like everybody else.”
While most law schools have experienced challenges and a decrease in applicants, the degree to which they have been affected differs.
“Our employment rate is actually going up…It is not increasing in a very big way but what is important to realize is that Wash. U. is a very good school,” Tamanaha said. “There are 200 schools, and we are one of the better schools, so what is happening with us is good, but there are still many law schools that have terrible employment rates.”
Senior and co-president of the Pre-Law Society, Luke Schiel, said both he and his peers are keenly aware of the industry’s struggles.
“There’s a lot of consciousness about what people are getting themselves into. In fact, a lot of people in the Pre-Law Society are only considering going to law school. They haven’t, you know, pulled the trigger or are set on going to law school. And I think that’s a reflection of people knowing that it’s such a huge investment that they really need to make sure exactly what they want to do, because otherwise, that’s a huge cost they incur for no reason if they end up not wanting to have a J.D. or use a J.D. to practice law or something,” he said.
Both Schiel and co-president senior Tiana Walden said they entered the University knowing they wanted to go to law school, questioned their decision along the way, but have since decided they are certain about their postgraduate plans.
“There’s always going to be a need for lawyers, so you just have to strategically position yourself to be a lawyer that’s needed,” he said.
Walden agreed that a law degree will retain its value in the future.
“[The Pre-Law Society] tries to…show students that there isn’t just one type of law that they can practice with their J.D.,” Walden said. “There’s not just one use for the J.D., so that’s what we really try to get at.”
Carolyn Carpenter, a senior planning to attend law school in the future, said the trend has not deterred her plans.
“[It] has not affected my plans of going to a law school but it has caused me to consider it carefully…I think more than anything it will affect the criteria of how I decide which law schools to apply to and ultimately where I decide to go,” she said.
Jessica Metzger, a junior and pre-law student, voiced similar views.
“I haven’t taken the LSAT yet, but unless I don’t do well and don’t think I will be a competitive applicant, I’m not going to change my career plans because of the current state of admissions.”” she said.
“My parents are concerned [about the increasing tuition], but I think they are more concerned about me finding a job with just an undergraduate degree.”