Erwin Chemerinsky is a noted constitutional law scholar who has devoted his career to legal education. He is also the founding dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine. Chemerinsky's new school opened in 2009, amid the financial crisis and a related — and perhaps permanent — sharp constriction in the job market for new lawyers.
Though the University of California has four well-established law schools, Chemerinsky says UC-Irvine's program fills an unmet need. Irvine, he says, "puts far more emphasis on preparing students to be lawyers at the highest level of the profession than perhaps other law schools."
To do that, Irvine needed top-flight facilities and professors. Price, seemingly, is no object. UC-Irvine, a public university, offers the second-most-expensive legal education in the country. At more than $77,000 a year including living expenses, a JD from Irvine tops the bill from Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Only the University of California at Berkeley, at almost $78,000, costs more.
Chemerinsky seems untroubled by this, arguing in an interview that Irvine is no more expensive than Stanford or the University of Southern California, really. He highlights the success of his first class of 56 students, which graduated in May. Nearly 80 percent have already found full-time jobs as lawyers. Excellence costs, he says, and, by implication, excellence pays.
"If we are not going to be subsidized by the state" at previous levels, Chemerinsky says, "and we are going to be a top-quality law school, there is not an alternative in terms of what it is going to cost. Everybody wishes it would be less expensive. But there is not a way to do it without compromising quality."
There are a few other recent statistics that Chemerinsky and his colleagues at the nation's law schools might want to bring into sharper focus.
In 2011, more than 44,000 students graduated from the 200-odd U.S. law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Nine months after graduation, only a bit more than half had found full-time jobs as lawyers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 73,600 new lawyer jobs from 2010 to 2020. But just three years into that decade, about 132,757 new lawyers have hit the job market.
While not every new JD seeks employment as a lawyer, it is safe to say that planning to work as an attorney is not rare among law students. But perhaps it should be. Data from the National Association of Legal Career Professionals indicate that since 2010, about 75,000 new law grads have found full-time jobs as lawyers.
So, in theory, all of the BLS-forecasted job openings through 2020 have already been filled, and 59,157 new lawyers are still looking for "real" law jobs.
Yes, of course some of the JD graduates this year and in the years to come will find high-paying, partner-track jobs at big firms and elsewhere. But the scale of the imbalance over a decade gives some indication of just how tough it is — and will be — as armies of newly minted JDs rise every year. By 2020, about 300,000 additional grads will join those 59,157 in a hunt for jobs that, statistically, are not to be found.
Though law-school enrollments have dipped slightly, these institutions have tenured faculty to pay and often luxe facilities to maintain.
Law students can borrow today — often with federally guaranteed loans — the full cost of tuition and expenses, and worry later about repaying what could total $237,000 for a UC-Irvine-level education.
For years, the return on investment made sense, as a law degree from a respected but not stellar school seemed to promise a long, fairly lucrative career, with more modest loans paid off in a 10-year span. But things changed as tuitions rose sharply and employment and compensation lagged. Federal tuition-repayment plans adjusted for low-earning lawyers now stretch to 25 years. If the loan is not paid off at the 25-year mark, the balance is forgiven, and the taxpayers eat the loss.
"I'm not sure how well-thought-out a lot of decisions [to invest in law school] are, in all candor," says Mark Medice, national program director for Peer Monitor, a Thomson Reuters unit that tracks hiring and compensation data at large law firms, which traditionally have offered the highest-paying jobs to new lawyers. The market for new lawyers is so weak, says Medice, who himself has a JD and an MBA, that the return on investment is questionable for those at all but the most elite law schools. "If you have to pay $100,000 to do it, is it worth it?" he wonders. "Arguably, no."
Besides, most law schools offer such a broad overview that legal education is "generic" and lacks utility, Medice continues. While most law schools now claim some sort of clinical or practical training, the broader trends may demand more fundamental reform.
Perhaps the structure of the entire system needs to change, with number of JDs graduating each year declining drastically. Medice envisions a new model, built around year-long, hyper-specific skills — such as discovery, regulatory matters and litigation support — that would quickly and relatively cheaply train students for the kinds of legal jobs that are available.
Though down-market compared with the Harvard Law world depicted in the 1973 movie "Paper Chase," this trade-school model "could really benefit the industry in a cost-effective way," Medice says.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of law students are being trained for a profession that no longer has room for most of them.
"It is hard to describe the misery we are generating," says Paul Campos, who has taught at University of Colorado Law School since 1990. "We close our eyes to an entire generation of people we are selling a bill of goods to. We have talked ourselves into believing that what we are doing is defensible, and it's not.
"It is not defensible to charge people $200,000 for a degree which is worse than worthless. We have a systemic catastrophe on our hands."
Campos blames the federal loan program, which he says issues loans to cover any amount of tuition, to any number of law students, with no regard for post-academic realities. In his Law School Tuition Bubble blog, 2008 Marquette University JD Matt Leichter, who writes frequently for AmLaw Daily, estimates that 2010 law school graduates took on $3.6 billion in loans, and that students over the next decade (for whom there are statistically zero jobs) will borrow $53 billion.
"If the federal government applied any actuarial standards, half the law schools would shut down tomorrow," Campos says. "The whole thing is a basically a giant subsidy machine run for the benefit of legal education."
Campos says his crisis of confidence in his industry reached a tipping point in May 2010, when "one of my all-time favorite students committed suicide a year to the day after he graduated. He was a very, very thoughtful and gifted young guy; and the long and the short of it, he couldn't find a job.
"It was a triggering event for me. I started doing some nitty-gritty research into how many people were getting jobs, what kind of jobs and what level of debt. And I was genuinely shocked."
About a year after his student's death, Campos launched a blog, Inside the Law School Scam, and he published a book in the same vein in September, not long after Washington University law professor Brian Tamanaha's well-received "Failing Law Schools."
This is not a crisis of the elites. The exceptional, those graduating at the top of their law school classes at Stanford, Yale or Harvard will, as ever, do just fine. And choosing to attend a third- or fourth-tier law program, which can have tuition on par with the most-expensive elite schools, has long been seen as a dicey proposition.
Given that, perhaps Chemerinsky is brilliant in his bid to create a Yale of the West. If the middle is now doomed, the bottom has always been doomed, and only the elite are likely to weather the storm, then join the elite.
But if UC-Irvine Law ends up being just another respected middle-of-the-pack academy, its graduates, who will soon number 200 a year, will join the crisis already affecting the students of mid-tier schools.
Consider this: Of the 576 who graduated George Washington University this year, 20 percent — 112 — are employed as lawyers only because GWU pays them $15 an hour, up to $525 each week, to do volunteer work. The average indebtedness of GWU's class of 2011 was $127,360. Trying to adjust, the school trimmed first-year enrollment this fall by 16 percent, to 400.
As these grand colliding forces play out, the future may be ripe for what Peer Monitor's Medice envisioned: low-cost, bare-bones law programs that act more like trade schools.
The law school at the University of the District of Columbia seems to be working in that vein. It is not fancy, housed as it is in a newly renovated but far from swank building on upper Connecticut Avenue. It is not even ranked on an overall basis by U.S. News, though UDC's curriculum requiring hundreds of hours of hands-on training does rank 10th on U.S. News's list of top clinical programs in the country.
An embarrassingly low percentage — just 20.5 percent — of its 2011 graduates are reported as employed nine months post-graduation in full-time jobs requiring a JD. A hyper-practical law degree from UDC is hardly a sure thing.
But it doesn't pretend to be, and perhaps that is what is rather refreshing about it. UDC Law's dean, Shelley Broderick, is a wry, unpretentious former criminal defense attorney who paid her way through Georgetown Law with loans and the proceeds of her job as a Teamster working on the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
Here is her pitch, delivered on a break from packing her own moving boxes, as she wore a work shirt and flip-flops one afternoon in September: "It's affordable, it's accessible, its curriculum is laser-focused on the kinds of jobs we are trying to prepare you for. We don't invite people to come here suggesting [they will] get jobs in the big firms. That is not who we are. If you want to be a public interest lawyer, public service lawyer, public policy lawyer, in private practice in a small firm, this is perfect for you. Because you can do this in an affordable way and find work that you are trained to do, educated to do. We can't all be Yale."
UDC is dirt-cheap, as law schools go. It charges D.C. residents $10,620 a year (with living expenses, UDC costs $41,630; $52,750 for nonresidents).
And Broderick seems to make her pitch with clear eyes and clear conscience.
Could Broderick make the same pitch if UDC cost $70,000 a year? Would "excellence" justify those costs?
"I couldn't do it," Broderick says. "There are not jobs where you can pay that back in a reasonable amount of time for the vast majority of people who go to law school. I couldn't do it, because it is a lie."