Fixing the Law School Debtors’ Prison

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Steven J. Harper, in Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs, presented some disheartening statistics concerning current law school cost and the current legal job market. Granted, the preposterous cost of law school is not new news–it has been spiraling to absurd levels for years. The tuition of private law schools has, according to University of Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos, “doubled over the past 20 years, tripled over the past 30, and quadrupled over the past 40”. But, what is shocking about Harper’s article is law schools are still raising tuition, because, essentially, there are no disincentives to do so.

The average law school obtains 69 % of their total revenues via tuition. And, to quote Harper, once a student pays their tuition, “law schools have no responsibilities for the debt their students take on”. To David Lat, in his article Law school is way too expensive. And only the federal government can fix that the federally subsidized loans are the real issue: law schools raise tuition and increase enrollment size, and the federal government responds by continuing to subsidize all the loans accrued by law students. There still isn’t a check or balance in this system—law school have the green light to pump out graduates into the marketplace with six-figure debt and likely no chance of landing a legal job in a saturated market. Harper suggests implementing methods to make law schools accountable: student loans should bear a rational relationship to law school outcomes. Lat proposes per-student or per-school caps that would at least attempt to lower the cost of law school tuition. Policy-making, on the other hand, has preferred the long game: rather than there be government intervention, the mechanism for adjustment appears to be to let the market forces sort everything out. Eventually, people won’t apply to law school because the legal market is too expensive to enter. This is occurring: the Law School Admission Council reports there has been a 4% decrease in applications for law school for Fall 2015 compared to Fall 2014.

Here are some of the eye-opening statistics Harper reported:

  • For those attending private law schools, the average student loan debt is $127,000
  • And for those attending public law schools, the average student loan debt is $88,000
  • Ten months after graduation, 60% of the graduating class of 2014 had found full-time, long-term jobs requiring them to pass the bar

With all of these macro elements at play, we still have job ads like this one, paying a robust $10 per hour to new bar admittees. Let’s see, how long would it take to pay off $88,000 in loans at $10 per hour?

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