The Growing Law School Disaster

I had the opportunity this past weekend to personally congratulate McCarter & English partner Tim Fisher on his appointment as the new dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law.  Tim is a great guy and a terrific lawyer.   His selection as dean marks a clear turning point for UCONN, which has traditionally drawn its law school deans from the ranks of academia.

I know Tim is looking forward to his new position.   But, boy oh boy, what challenges he will face.   (The following comments deal with law schools in general, not UCONN specifically.)

Two recent posts by Professor Brian Tamanaha of Washington University Law School–concerning out-of-control law school debt and decreasing admissions standards–should put the fear of god into any law school dean and any law school applicant.  Prof. Tamanaha identifies two truly scary trends.  First, he observes that the law school graduate debt problem has “gone critical:”

In 2010, only 4 law schools had graduates with average debt in excess of $135,000; in 2011, 17 law schools did. This past year 26 law schools surpassed this amount.

Second, he points out that law school applicants with low LSAT/GPA scores are at higher risk of failing law school and the bar.  He then reveals the following disturbing trend in admissions:

A decade ago, for the entering class of 2003, only 4 law schools accepted 50% or more of their applicants (the highest at 55.4%).

Jump ahead to 2009, when 35 law schools admitted 50% or more of their applicants to the entering class. Within this total, at 31 law schools the acceptance rate was between 50% and 59%; 4 schools accepted between 60% and 69%, and zero law schools accepted 70% or above.

2011 showed deterioration at the worst levels of acceptance rates. A total of 42 law schools accepted 50% or more of their applicants, broken down as follows: 29 schools accepted between 50% and 59%; 7 schools accepted between 60% and 69%; 5 schools accepted between 70% and 79%; one law school accepted 80.1% (Cooley).

The most worrisome aspect of this deterioration is that a truly severe crunch is set to hit law schools this coming year: the number of applicants for entry in 2013 will be around 55,000, substantially down from 68,000 applicants for the class of 2012. It is likely that more than 100 law schools nationwide will accept 50% or more of their applicants (20 schools accepted between 45% and 49% in 2012), and perhaps several dozen law schools will accept two-thirds or more of their applicants. This will likely occur even if law schools shrink their entering classes, as many will have little choice but to do.

In short, too many law schools are reacting to decreasing applications by admitting more and more students whose academic backgrounds and experience suggest they may not have what it takes to succeed, at least in law school.  The law schools keep making money, but the students get stuck holding the bag.  (Please, spare me the arguments about how law school applicants are all rational, adult economic actors who can make intelligent decisions about whether to take on massive debt in order to increase their lifetime earning potential.)

I loved law school.  And I love being a lawyer.  (And I love teaching as an adjunct at UCONN Law School.)  But it is very hard for me to look at this data and not have really, really serious questions about whether getting a law degree is worth the costs and risks, at least today.  (Click here for my latest effort to address troubling legal issues like this one through song!)

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