Critics of the legal-education industrial complex would probably like to see some radical changes in the U.S. law school system. They’d probably want a few dozen law schools to shut down entirely, to reduce the glut of lawyers in this country. Barring that, they might want to see law schools reduce tuition dramatically — not just freeze tuition, which some schools are already doing, but make an outright cut in the sticker price of a J.D.

Alas, expecting such changes isn’t terribly realistic. Law school deans and law professors aren’t going to willingly reduce their salaries or send themselves into unemployment — and why should they? Despite all the warnings about the risk involved in taking on six figures of debt to acquire a law degree, demand for the product they’re selling, legal education, remains robust (even if it’s showing signs of abating).

Interestingly enough, however, we’re seeing some law schools cutting their production (of graduates, of J.D. degrees)….

Reports Joel Stashenko of the New York Law Journal:

At least two New York law schools plan to reduce admissions this fall in recognition of the sluggish job market for law school graduates.

The deans of Albany Law School and Touro Law Center in Central Islip said their schools each would admit 10 fewer students.

“It is the ethical and moral thing to do,” Touro Dean Lawrence Raful said in an interview. “I don’t think the [job] placement situation is going to turn around for a number of years and I think we are concerned about the ethics of turning out quite so many students in debt when we know that not everyone can get a job to pay off that debt.”

It’s nice to see this emphasis on ethics from Dean Raful. In the past, sadly, some administrators at Touro have been ethically challenged. (For the record, they’ve been at the college rather than the law school.)

Meanwhile, north of Westchester County:

Albany Law will admit 240 students this fall, down from the 250 in the current first-year class, Dean Thomas Guernsey said.

Mr. Guernsey said applications were down about 20 percent for this fall compared to last year’s record-high number of applications at his and many other law schools.

“The job situation has resulted in applicants rethinking whether they should go to law school,” Mr. Guernsey said in an interview. “I think the drop in applications is a reflection of the job market. They are completely intertwined.”

Well said — and, it should be noted, not a new view for Dean Guernsey. As noted by the NYLJ, he has previously argued against creating new law schools at Binghamton and Stony Brook, arguing that “there are not enough legal jobs for all the 3,750 graduates already turned out by New York’s 15 law schools.”

This might be good news for lawyers and law students. But cynics and critics — Elie’s on vacation from now until March 14, so I’ll fill his role for now — would probably make several observations:

  • These are just two drops in the ocean. Touro’s entering class will go from 280 students to 270, and Albany’s will go from 250 to 240. In percentage terms, these are tiny changes.
  • Meanwhile, other New York law schools are keeping enrollment steady, and one — Buffalo Law — is increasing its entering class size (by 11 students).
  • Touro and Albany Law might be acting out of self-interest rather than altruism or ethics. By shrinking their entering class sizes, they might be able to improve on such measures as student selectivity, bar passage rates, and student-faculty ratios, and thereby climb the U.S. News law school rankings. (This is a view that Ashby Jones articulates near the end of his write-up.)

Professor John Yoo, for one, sees these moves as economically rather than ethically motivated. He writes, over at Ricochet:

The decision to reduce the size of a law school class has little to do with morality (though it may have a lot to do with moralizing) and everything to do with economics. Education is a product in the market, like any other. The producers (law schools) sell a service (a legal education) at a price (tuition) to consumers (students). If there is an oversupply of the product, or the demand falls, then the price should drop and eventually the quantity will fall until the market clears. I don’t see anything so moral (or immoral) about it.

Yoo’s liberal critics might scoff that he’s not one to talk about morality. But he might be right here: isn’t this just about economics, not ethics?

And if that’s the case — if you’re not willing to give law schools any credit for shrinking themselves, since they’re just responding to economic imperatives — then doesn’t the argument cut both ways? Can law schools and their administrators be condemned as unethical for scamming their students, when really they’re just providing a good to a market? A market full of consumers who continue to demand the good, even after being warned of its dangers?

The Economics of Law School Admissions [Ricochet]
The Incredible Shrinking Law School? It’s the Vision of Two NY Deans [WSJ Law Blog]
Two Deans Say They Will Trim Entering Classes [New York Law Journal]

Earlier: Law Schools Join the Ranks of Institutions Averse To Profiteering During a Rough Economy


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