Law school: the schools

This is part one in a two-part series on my thoughts on this article from this Sunday’s NYT.

Is law school a racket?  One of the first jokes (I use that term loosely) students learn in law school is that the answer to every question is, “It depends.”  The answer to the question posed here is no different: it really does depend.  It depends on which law school you go to, how you finance it and what your end goal is.

I have long had issue with the US News & World Report’s rankings system and long suspected that there was little accountability and lots of number tweaking.  The article, though, gave me specific targets at which to aim my criticism: the schools themselves and the ABA.  (US News & World Report comes off — to me — as a weak lemming in the mix; reporting just what the ABA and the schools tell it to.)

I did not know that the ABA is setting the “standards” by which the schools measure themselves.  I suspect, of course, that the ABA is easily influenced by schools and their alum so, again, I focus my anger on the schools.

The schools have gotten away for YEARS with charging outrageous sums of money with promises of a rosy financial future.  We all knew that was happening.  What I did not know, though, is that one of the rankings by which US News judges the law schools is by looking at the employment figures for the school’s grads nine months after graduation.  Sounds reasonable, right?  Well, yes, but it does not mean that those grads have to be employed in anything related to the law.  They could be waiting tables, cleaning toilets or walking dogs for a living.  If they have a job, they count as a success!  What’s more is that if the school cannot locate its recent graduates — say, even 25% of them, which Thomas Jefferson School of Law apparently has lost — they count as employed to!  So, wowsers.  Incentive not to keep in touch with your grads?  I think so.

Another thing that I did not know, but suspected, is just how much the schools are overcharging.  Running a law school has a pretty high personnel-level cost to it, but it doesn’t have labs to run or super equipment to buy.  The article states that some law schools are so profitable that tuition money from them can be used to support other, less-flush areas of a university.  I actually don’t mind that idea and, in fact, I may even like it.  I like the idea of a law school, like Wisconsin, that is an important part of the university as a whole.  Law students can reap great benefits from having a fully-funded, thriving university outside its front doors.  Some law students get a dual degree in business or environmental science or history.  I took a Spanish class my third year.  But what about stand-alone law schools that pop up in strip malls in California?  Why does it cost $38,700 for one year of law school at Thomas Jefferson?  Or more than $40,000 at California Western School of Law? (Both in San Diego).  Because they can get it, I guess.  There is certainly no shortage of lenders.

So, the schools charge way too much money and lie about the job prospects.  That’s pretty bad, right?  What’s worse, I think, may be how self-righteous they are about it.

Beth Kransberger, identified as an associate dean of student affairs at Thomas Jefferson, is quoted as having said something that nearly had me throwing the paper across the room in disgust.  She first states that most students at Thomas Jefferson are either (1) the first in their family to get a law degree or (2) immigrants and, according to her, both groups are generally from modest means.  Um, hmm.  So, a dad who is a doctor + a mom who is an engineer = modest means?  Immigrant = poor?  Anyway, moving on.  Whether or not someone is from modest means has absolutely nothing to do with whether they should be accepted to an outrageously priced, craptastic law school.  Actually, maybe it does — maybe it means they should be automatically rejected because the school comes to its ethical senses, realizing that it deliberately preys upon the poor person who thinks a law degree from Thomas Jefferson is something worth paying for.

The idea that law schools are getting away with bilking students of vast sums of money by promising them a secure future in a very insecure world makes me want to scream.  What Ms. Kransberger, or any other law school administrator or professor, should be saying is this:  If you, potential law student, want to get a legal education you should be aware of the following:  (a) law school is expensive; (b) there is no guarantee that you will get a legal job — or any job — upon graduation; (c) the market is saturated with lawyers; (d) where your degree is from matters; (e) doing well in school matters; and (f) lenders expect to be paid back.  With interest.  Potential student, you should also know this: (a) a legal education can be a really great, exciting thing; (b) law school is at once academically vigorous and incredibly tedious; (c) being a lawyer is at once intellectually stimulating and painfully detail-oriented; (d) the law is the fundamental basis for a responsible civic community and, thus, as a lawyer, you will be a part of something very important; (e) you will, as a lawyer, often feel that you make no difference whatsoever and (f) every once in a while, you will feel very satisfied and proud.

Even if schools continue to charge crazy amounts for tuition (and I don’t see this changing anytime soon — it seems that academia always does well in a bad economy), I hope that they can at least be more honest with their consumers.  And if they cannot, they I hope the consumers will do their due diligence, wise-up and make more educated decisions.

Next post: the students!

[Full disclosure: Ms. Kransberger held a similar position to the one she holds now at the UW Law School when I was a student there.  In fact, at the beginning of my third year, I learned that the school would not be renewing the very small scholarship (about $500) that they had awarded me my first two years.  My friend, Jess, learned the same thing about hers.  Jess set up a meeting with Ms. Kransberger to discuss the situation, but Jess was quickly dismissed when Ms. Kransberger told her the decision was final, citing the school’s “obligation to its first year students.”  I believe I emailed Ms. Kransberger to complain about these decisions but never got a response.  To me, Ms. Kransberger seemed to be saying that her philosophy is to rope students in with inducements that they later take away when the students become so entrenched they have virtually no choice but to complete the degree.  Not that I would have gone to law school, or dropped out of law school, over $500, but the attitude was what struck me then — and strikes me now in the article — as almost unethical.]


4 Responses to “Law school: the schools”

  1. 1 kateandgracie January 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Well, this post was clearly a hit. I feel like my blog is dying. Hmm. Might not do that part two afterall.

  2. 2 Sara H January 14, 2011 at 8:44 am

    No no! I read it, just didn’t have time to respond. 🙂 I think there are a number of factors at work here, including the massive availability of loans. And I was looking forward to Part II, because I really can’t decide who’s more culpable. On one hand, students need to do their due diligence. On the other hand, law schools advertise that you can get a lot of different kinds of jobs, but they’re really only helpful if you want to get a very specific kind of job, of which there aren’t very many right now.

    I think a lot of this applies not just to law school but to undergrad, too. It’s been interesting, because we’ve been doing some college planning with Sean and I’ve gone to some meetings/seminars. It’s a whole new world out there, and it’s expensive! But the problem is, an undergrad degree is often almost kind of worthless given the kind of debt you can come out with. Where’s the happy medium?

    I truly do not understand what Kransberger was trying to say, but it sure smacked of condescension.

  3. 3 kateandgracie January 14, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Yay! Yes, I think the students — particularly the bozo from Thomas Jefferson interviewed in the article — have a huge role in the whole thing. And Aaron puts a lot of blame on the widely-available student loan industry (which I realize is true, but that would be a different post and something I’d have to do a lot of research on — you know, how do they calculate their rates, the role of the federal government, their rate of return, how many employees all of those places have, the consolidation game — and frankly, I don’t really know how to begin with that). Ok, so I will do a post on the students.

    I can’t even imagine the stress involved planning for your Little Ones’ future. Speaking of, when is your due date again? I hope you don’t mind, I have trouble getting myself to say your “guess date.”

  4. 4 aaronandgracie January 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Kransberger! (shakes fist angrily)

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January 2011

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