Usually when we talk about the crushing price of legal education, we focus on law school administrations who are raising tuition even as the legal economy continues to falter. Occasionally, we look at prospective law students themselves — a group of people who are evidently too addled to act with rational self-interest. Always, the American Bar Association’s utter failure to regulate law schools on behalf of aspiring lawyers looms as the 800-pound gorilla that keeps taking a dump in the middle of the room.
Rarely, if ever, does the media turn its gaze towards law professors and their culpability in the epic scam of taking money from kids who don’t know any better and will never be able to pay off their debts. Most law professors don’t set tuition rates. They don’t determine the scope of loan forgiveness programs. They don’t mislead the world via U.S. News in order to pad employment stats. Hell, most of them aren’t even directly engaged in recruiting the next class of minnows that will keep the scam alive. All they do is teach, research, and take as much money as the market will offer.
But Washington University law professor Brian Tamanaha thinks that his professorial colleagues need to step up to the plate and start taking some responsibility for what is happening to law students — especially law students at low-ranked law schools. He says that professors can no longer turn a blind eye to the sadness of their students….
Writing on Balkinization, Tamanaha tells his fellow law professors to start by actually logging on and taking a look at what law students are saying:
It’s grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.
Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don’t dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.
You’d think that legal scholars would at least want to be educated as to what the system is doing to the consumers of legal education.
Tamanaha goes on to list all of the standard defenses law professors make:
Wait a minute, we protest.
Law professors are not scammers. We advance the rule of law and justice. We promote efficient legal institutions. We develop legal knowledge and knowledge about law for the good of society. We are the conscience of the legal profession. Indeed, we made a financial sacrifice to become academics when we could have earned more money as practicing lawyers.
The students made their choices. They should have done more research. They should have thought more carefully about the consequences of taking on so much debt. It was their foolish over-optimism to think they would place among the top 10% of the class and land the scarce corporate law jobs. They should have known better. (If the numbers on our website are misleading it’s the Administration’s fault; and we don’t set the high tuition.) Don’t blame us.
It is their dream to become a lawyer—we provide them with the opportunity and what they make of it is up to them. Besides, a law degree is valuable even if you don’t get a job as a lawyer. It improves your reasoning ability. It opens all kinds of doors.
But Tamanaha doesn’t actually buy these arguments:
When annual tuition was $10,000 to $15,000, these rationalizations had enough truth, or at least plausibility, to hold up. When annual tuition reaches $30,000 to $40,0000, however, it begins to sound hollow. Students at many law schools are putting out a huge amount of money for meager opportunities…
More crucially, law schools must shrink the number of graduates, and must hold the line on tuition increases. (The fact that many students get scholarships is no answer because it simply means that some students, those paying full fare—often the students with the worst prospects—are subsidizing others.) This will be painful: smaller raises (perhaps even salary reductions), smaller administrations, smaller faculties, more teaching, less money for research, travel, and conferences.
The longer law schools delay in undertaking these measures, the more casualties there will be. At some point, law professors can no longer disclaim responsibility for the harmful consequences of this enterprise. (These comments are not meant to point fingers at others—I too want to earn as much as I can, with lots of time for research, knowing that this is paid for by students.)
We probably shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for law professors to suggest a course of action that will lead to a reduction in their salaries.
But if this system is going to change, pressure will have to come from all sides. With the ABA fiddling while law students burn, it is incumbent upon everybody else to demand that legal education become something other than a potentially ruinous financial decision.
The charge cannot be led by angry, unemployed graduates and bloggers trying to write their way out of debtor’s prison. If the system is going to change, the movement will need law professors who can take their heads out of the sand long enough to see the carnage. It’ll need potential law students to demand accurate information about what they’re getting themselves into. It’ll need university presidents to stop looking at law students as cash cows which they can milk for money to fund the Romance Languages department.
Or it’ll need the federal government to step in under the guise of preventing consumer fraud. Wherever there is a carrot, there is also a stick. Law professors should start trying to help reform the system now — unless they want to negotiate their salary with a dreaded governmental pay czar, at some point in the future once enough people have succumbed and defaulted on their student loans.