Some advice for law school deans: Don’t say that there isn’t a problem

December 4, 2012

School BusinessAs you may have already heard, Lawrence Mitchell, the dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, wrote an op-ed piece that was published by the New York Times entitled, “Law School Is Worth the Money.

In case you haven’t read it, here’s the gist of Mitchell’s argument:

  • The “relentless attacks” on law schools by “the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors” are “nonsense.”
  • The law school tuition increases over the past two or three decades are perfectly reasonable.
  • Law school is actually a great investment.

I’m not writing this to debunk Mitchell’s piece; Salon’s Paul Campos and Above the Law’s Elie Mystal do a pretty thorough job exposing the Case Western dean’s misrepresentations (and sometimes outright lies).

I’m writing this to give some advice to Dean Mitchell and any other law school deans like him: stop pretending that nothing is wrong when there is most definitely something wrong.

Things aren’t going that well for the majority of recent law graduates; a significant portion of them are still looking for work, and a big chunk of the ones that actually are employed are in a position that does not require a J.D., pays significantly less than Mitchell’s purported average starting lawyer’s salary of $61,500, or (most often) both.

To make matters much worse, these new lawyers have to contend with $150,000+ in student loan debt all the while.

Instead of losing all respect by talking like a desperate salesman, might I suggest a different approach?

Namely, try telling us that you are aware of the problem and want to be part of the solution.

Instead of pretending that law school tuition hikes aren’t obscene but reasonable, it’s time to start looking at ways to reduce law school costs to halt or even reverse this trend (it also wouldn’t hurt to explain why the average dean of law salary is over double that of the average practicing attorney).

Instead of pretending that the complaints about law school transparency are coming from a few disgruntled professors and recent graduates, recognize that a sizeable percentage of graduates feel cheated, and that U.S. Senators from both political parties are looking for answers.

Instead of pretending that it’s a lawyer’s own fault if he or she can’t find work, be upfront about job prospects to potential law students.

Instead of pretending that there are plenty of opportunities in the job market for those savvy enough to find them, acknowledge the fact that there is currently only one new job for every two law school graduates.

Instead of making market conditions worse for attorneys looking for work by pumping out J.D.s as quickly as possible, see the writing on the wall: the market simply doesn’t need as many lawyers as law schools are producing.

This last one is the hardest pill to swallow, since it calls on law schools to significantly slim down their admissions numbers (to somewhere around 50%-60% of their current levels).

However, if they don’t take this voluntary action now, they are in for something much worse.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know how it will turn out exactly, but one or more of the following scenarios will come to pass if law schools maintain the status quo:

  • Enrollment figures will continue to decline until they reach acceptable market levels.
  • The Department of Education, either on its own initiative or because of congressional action, will implement quotas on the number of loans granted each year.
  • Congress will completely revoke the American Bar Association’s law school accreditation authority, and impose much more stringent standards that implement heavy requirements on graduate employment rates.

Unfortunately for law schools, their deans aren’t liable for the school’s fortunes in 15 years, so it’s very likely that law schools are going to do things the hard way (i.e. one or more of the above outcomes will come to pass).

In the meantime, we can likely expect Dean Mitchell and others like him to ignore the aforementioned advice and steer the sinking ship into deeper waters.