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UMass Law School is Open: Law Dean Robert Ward and I Talk About It

UMass School of Law (fka Southern New England School of Law) is open for business. Orientation happened last week, and students started classes yesterday, at Massachusetts’s first public law school.

As has been well-documented in these pages, I’m unimpressed. Put simply: there isn’t enough of a demand for new lawyers right now to justify a revamped public law school — no matter how many times you emphasize the word “public” in your press releases.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to voice my concerns to the dean of UMass Law, Robert Ward, on NPR’s Radio Boston program. Click here to listen (I start running my mouth at the 8:30 mark).

I was asked on the program to provide an alternative perspective to the dean, and that’s what I did. But the mentality of the callers was particularly interesting. They really illustrated why there is so much support for more law schools…

The arguments in defense on UMass Law from Dean Ward are familiar to those who have been following along with the conversion of Southern New England School of Law to UMass Law: Massachusetts was one of the few states that did not have a public law school, tuition will be cheaper than at private law schools, the world needs more public interest lawyers, etc.

Listening to Dean Ward speak about the school to a lay audience, I was struck by how the conversation quickly turned to whether or not the law school will cost the state of Massachusetts any money. Of course it won’t. Law schools are cash generators for university systems; it’s like having a football program, but without having to deal with Title IX. Dean Ward was able to happily report that UMass Law will return money to the state.

Just wait until the state gets used to having that money flowing in from the law school. I’m sure at one time public law schools in California were cheap. Now, with the state facing a severe budget crisis, look at what’s happening to the cost of tuition for the law schools in the U.C. system. By way of example, the newly minted UC Irvine Law School offered free tuition last year to its inaugural class. This year, tuition and fees for 1Ls for the ’10/’11 academic year total just over $40,000 (in-state). Don’t say I didn’t warn you, would-be UMass students.

But my counterpoint to Dean Ward didn’t focus on the still-hefty $23,500 UMass is charging its new law students. Instead, I focused on jobs. People have a habit of thinking that there are public interest jobs just lying around waiting to be snapped up by lawyers willing to “do something good” with their law degrees. Is there any evidence of that? Yesterday we noted that 3Ls at various Florida law schools were looking at taking unpaid internships with private firms. Arguably, if there were abundant public sector or public interest jobs that paid more than $0/hour, these students would happily work in the public interest.

In fact, during the recession we’ve seen that paying public interest and public sector jobs have been subject to fierce competition. And we’ve seen that students who have a private law firm willing to defer them for a year have a significant advantage over people who are trying to start their career in the public interest without a $50K deferral stipend. The jobs just aren’t there to support new lawyers, no matter how public-minded they want to be.

But that won’t stop prospective law students from going to law school in droves. The dean commented that he has “no doubt” that UMass will receive 1,000 applications for next year’s class. I got additional insight as to why that is the case from the callers who came on after I got off the line.

Near the end of the segment, a caller said that my concern about the amount of jobs available “in law” was a “really stupid argument” against opening a public law school. Another caller emphasized that there are a lot of things lawyers can do outside of working in the legal sector: “you get a juris doctorate — which is a doctorate.” Dean Ward also emphasized that there are many things lawyers do that don’t involve working at a law firm.

Such is the mystique of a law degree. You wouldn’t hear people say there are tons of things you can do with a medical degree in a world where there were no jobs for doctors or researchers. You wouldn’t hear people say there is a ton of use from an M.B.A. in a world where there was no business. But even after you get people to accept that the job market for practicing attorneys is shrinking (or moving to India), they still just believe that there are non-legal professions that are dying to employ law school graduates.

That argument doesn’t make a whole lot of sense even when the economy is doing well. But right now it’s total hogwash. Is the argument that the American economy as a whole is doing better than the legal economy? Of course not. You know how I know? Because if the American economy was strong in other sectors, you wouldn’t have all of these idiots flocking to law school in the vain hope that adding “Esq.” after their name would magically help them become employed. There aren’t enough jobs, period. And right now you can be unemployed and struggling without three years of lost opportunity cost, and without owing $70,500 to UMass and/or an amalgam of private lenders and the federal government.

But what can you do? UMass is going to make money, the state of Massachusetts is going to make money, and the only people who are going to lose money are those who are willfully ignorant of the facts. And it just so happens that nobody thinks they are being willfully ignorant in the moment when they make a decision.

So this all has to play out the way it will play out. The UMass kids will get ripped to shreds when they try to compete in the private market (75th percentile LSAT score = 148), so they’ll look for a soft landing in the public sector, only to find that they’re still trying to get the same jobs as people from BU and BC (and HLS kids “who want to do good”). The ABA will accredit UMass (because what does the ABA care if another law school enters the market) which will only increase the number of students applying to the school. UMass will inflate its employment stats by offering on-campus employment and other non-full-time options. Another scamblog will be born.

Only it’s not a “scam.” A scam contemplates a world where the scammer is hiding some kind of crucial information from the person who is getting ripped off. That’s not happening here. Anybody who is paying attention can look at UMass and know exactly what is going on here. Anybody who is serious about pursuing a career in the law can read an employment report, or a bimodal salary distribution curve. Anybody can ask the public defender’s office if they are actually hiring, and how many positions are open, before investing $70,500 to get there. People can choose to educate themselves about their own career prospects.

But prospective students, state officials, and regulatory organizations don’t seem terribly concerned about the outcome of a legal education. The kids themselves don’t seem to care about what will happen to them approximately one minute after graduation; why should the state? And that’s why UMass is open for business today.

Get A Law Degree In Mass. For $23,000 A Year [Radio Boston]

Earlier: UMass Law School: All Systems Go
Law School Tuition Hikes Spread Like Wildfires in California
Firms Now Looking for Unpaid Summer Associates

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