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Failing Law Schools (Chicago Series in Law and Society)
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on June 16, 2012
The recent recession hit the legal industry harder than most, and to paraphrase Warren Buffet, when the tide receded we learned law schools had been swimming naked. Something is obviously badly wrong, but a deluge of scamblogs and overheated articles notwithstanding, very little intelligent is being said about it. Brian Tamanaha--law professor, former interim law school dean, and traitor to his class--changes all that in this wonderful book, replacing hyperbole with facts and sound theory.

Tamanaha first sets his sights on law professors, showing their pernicious effects on law schools both through the ABA-accreditation process (Part I) and through the law school itself (Part II). He then shifts his focus to the malignant effect on law schools of a single ranking--the US News (Part III), before showing why the law school model is broken and suggesting what to do about it (Part IV).

Law professors have proved a potent special interest force both within and out of the law school. It was they who convinced the ABA to mandate a third year of legal education and to adopt accreditation standards that put a premium on well paid tenure-track professors (the ABA had to backtrack somewhat from the latter in response to a DOJ antitrust suit). Professors have also effectively lobbied for the same within the law schools themselves. No dean can withstand the wrath of a unified faculty.

The law is curious among academic programs for being dominated by a single ranking. The law is prestige driven as it is, and the U.S. News & World Report ranking is waited on with bated breath each year by potential applicants. And so "[t]he annual pronouncement of the surviving rump of a defunct magazine thus mercilessly lords over legal academia." Manipulation is the rule of the day. Most (most) schools won't outright lie, but they will make the truth dance a mighty fine jig. More rankings (it's a fool's errand to expect rankings to go away) are a solution that Tamanaha doesn't give enough attention, here or in his later recommendations. They could both rely on less imperfect proxies for law school quality and, more importantly, dilute the over-importance of the U.S. News rankings.

A continued influx of large numbers of cost-insensitive students to law schools drives tuition increases and provides the financing for reduced teaching loads and so on. If potential students are acting irrationally, why? Tamanaha identifies three reasons: lack of information and uncertainty make it difficult to estimate a proper long-term rate of return, the optimism bias, and schools are providing misleading and incomplete employment numbers (he gets to another, the government student loan scheme, later, but for some reason doesn't mention it here). The third reason is the most disconcerting. Schools are providing bad data and doing it willfully. Since it's easier to gather salary and employment data from the most successful graduates, numbers can be manipulated by just not trying very hard to collect them. One example drives home how important effort is to reporting rates. Two schools, South Texas College of Law and Texas Southern University, both fourth-tier and located in Houston, Texas, with similar names and full of students with similar LSAT scores (one wonders how many students show up to the wrong school at the beginning of classes each year) have dramatically different results. South Texas salary figures represent only 5% (!) percent of the portion of a recent class employed in the private sector, while Texas Southern salary figures represent 97% of the same. The only explanation is that administrators at Texas Southern are working much harder than their counterparts at South Texas to gather salary data.

In Part IV, Tamanaha moves into an exploration of what the preceding and other trends say about the current law school economic model. His conclusion: its broken. Tuition has skyrocketed at far past the rate of inflation (or rate of increase in legal salaries), student debt has similarly ballooned, and an already tepid legal market contracted severely during the latest recession. Market distortions aside, students have begun to take notice, and are taking the LSAT, applying to law school, and matriculating to law school at steadily declining rates.

Tamanaha parts with some sound advice for potential law students and recommendations how to fix the law school model. Law schools show little interest in changing--new school UC Irvine, touted as the opportunity to build the perfect law school, instead looks like every other first tier school in every way. But if current trends continue, all the market distortions built into the current model won't be able to stop the correction. Tamanaha sees an inevitable end state as a law school model that reflects the bimodal distribution of legal salaries: schools will split between elite schools continuing on much as they have before (along with public law schools offering an attractive price and entrée to the local market) and newly practice oriented lower-tier schools run at a greatly reduced cost.

Tamanaha's primary recommendation is that the ABA-imposed minimum number of classroom hours be cut by a third (thus allowing true two-year programs), standards and official interpretations written for the benefit of faculty be deleted, and rules on law libraries be deleted.
But Tamanaha has understandably little faith in the ABA (after all, are not all professions conspiracies against the laity?) so he suggests a bypass: state supreme courts use their regulatory powers over state legal industries to circumvent the ABA-accreditation process by allowing graduates of non-accredited schools to sit for the bar.

Another bypass is changes to the federal loan scheme. Tamanaha gives two suggestions: apply federal loan eligibility requirements similar to those applied to for-profit vocational schools (and wouldn't that bruise a few egos) and cap federal loan totals by schools (Tamanaha also thinks a path to discharge of student loans in bankruptcy should be restored). Neither suggestion is wrongheaded, but both suffer from being overly crude and reliant on the government. If law students are going to continue to rely heavily on debt to finance their law degrees, and they are, then their creditors must play an integral role in policing their spending decisions (as any bank asked for a loan to buy a home or finance a business does). The government simply isn't competent to do so. They lack the information and the alignment of interests (the current system amounts to massive subsidies to law schools at the students' expense with taxpayers ultimately left to foot the bill, in true government fashion, far down the road).

Tamanaha's contribution to the conversation is welcome, not the least because he takes his subject seriously. Like all commentators, Tamanaha has an ulterior motive, but rather than the more common motive of propping up lawyer (and law professor) profits through further cartelization of the legal industry, Tamanaha's ulterior motive is improving access to justice. It is an admirable aim--and in my mind a moral imperative--and one that requires reform. Unfortunately, Tamanaha is not as effective in his prescription as in his diagnosis.

This review is of the Kindle edition. Reference material and appendices comprise 39% of the Kindle edition, and consist of: a list of abbreviations, a list of law schools references (in-text reference and official name), endnotes (linked from the text to the notes and back), and the index (referencing the hardcopy page numbers, but linked to the text).
52 helpful votes
53 helpful votes
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on June 20, 2012
This provocative book should be of interest to anyone involved in legal education, whether as a student, law professor, law dean, or simply as a taxpayer guaranteeing law student loans. The author is a well respected professor of law at Washington University, who did a stint as interim dean at St. John's University School of Law, and is the author of six other well-received books (including a couple I have reviewed on Amazon). So he knows of what he speaks from personal experience. Briefly put, the author believes current American legal education is in a "sorry state" due to the schools chasing after prestige and revenue as their primary goals, even at the cost of damaging their students.

The book is divided into four parts and some 14 chapters, preceded by an interesting prologue in which the author recounts his experiences as dean at St. John's. The first part deals with his view that law schools are largely self-regulating and utilize this power for their own (and not their students') betterment. The influence of the American Bar Association on legal education is highly detrimental, since it results in excessive faculty retention, uniform legal education no what what the character of the individual school and its students may be, and the inability to use adjunct professors to keep costs down. Moreover, clinical or practical legal education is reduced to a second class status.

Part II takes aim at law professors, by examining their light teaching loads, and the intense pressure to publish, both of which drive tuition costs up. Law professors, the author maintains, generally have had little practical experience themselves, and their published output is largely detached from law and of little use to lawyers and judges in their actual work. Law schools also place reliance upon clinical and legal writing instructors, instead of placing more of a load on law professors, which further drives up costs. Schools tend to enlarge their faculties not out of need but to match the growth of competing schools.

I found Part III to be highly interesting. Here the focus is the substantial impact (what the author terms "the grip") the highly influential "U.S. News" law school rankings have on the schools. Schools can engage in a variety of techniques to improve their rankings, such as by attracting high LSAT scoring applicants via scholarship offers; reporting false LSAT/GPA data; and by filling vacant seats with transfer students whose LSAT scores are not included in the rankings. These various strategies further add to costs and raise tuition.

Part IV deals with topics about which we are hearing a good deal these days. Law students as a group take on incredible levels of debt to finance their educations, aided by generous government assistance, but yet increasingly large numbers of graduates cannot find legal jobs, which pushes up the default rate on the government-guaranteed loans. Nonetheless, the schools keep increasing class sizes because that is the only way they can meet their high costs of operation. And they keep raising tuition because they can--students have little choice but to pay up to get the degree credential they crave. Several of the chapters in this part seek to educate potential law students as to what should warn them about particular schools.

Wow, to say the least! Quite an indictment. What does the author propose as a solution? Basically, he argues for differentiation in legal education: not every school needs to be Harvard or Yale; courses should be tailored to the goals of their students, whether it is a national law firm, or to get a job in a local firm. And schools need to be candid about their success rates, by not fudging the percentage of graduates who achieve legal jobs. No matter that legal jobs are shrinking, and debt levels continue to increase, I doubt if anything will slow down the rush to law school. A recent study showed that only 55% of 2011 grads secured legal employment, so the beat goes on. This book is full of many more stimulating suggestions, including some with which I disagree. But anyone interested in legal education can benefit enormously, and sharpen up their antennae, by grappling with this explosive 240 page missile. Our public discourse can only benefit from wide-scale reading and discussion of the author's ideas.
22 helpful votes
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on December 12, 2012
Although many law school professors and deans remain in denial, Tamanaha has identified and documented a fundamental problem in American legal education - for most students, it costs too much for the benefits provided. Students fulfill their (or their parent's) dream of obtaining a professional degree, only to find unobtainable the professional career that was the ultimate goal.

Tamanaha does better at identifying the problem than he does at suggesting the path forward. While deregulation and lower cost options are likely to be part of the solution, as he suggests, the ultimate solutions are likely to be more radical. My thoughts on that don't really fit, here but I've written more in a review article for the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics that's available at SSRN. [...]

If you know someone considering law school, Tamanaha's book is a must read. It won't be the final word, but it has helped launch an important discussion.
4 helpful votes
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on March 19, 2013
An excellent study. While I may disagree with on some recommendations Dean Tamanaha's findings are compelling. The ballooning expense of law school reminds one of tech stock valuations in 2000 and real estate prices in 2006.

The book is required pre-reading for an inexpensive law school I will be entering in the fall. As I seek the education much more than the credential I am not concerned about rankings as much as compatibility.
2 helpful votes
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on July 27, 2012
Brilliant expose of the law school industry! This book has been overdue for a long time. For the past thirty years or longer, law school graduation and more especially, attending one of the "national" law schools, has been touted as the sure pathway to personal and economic success. Failing Law Schools will be an eye-opening read for anyone outside the practice of law, and affirmation of what most practicing lawyers really think about (most) law schools - law schools exist for the primary benefit of law educators (the law school industry) and not for the practice of law (the lawyers and judges) or for the public at large. As a nation, we are now facing a glut of unemployed and underemployed law graduates that are $120,000 to $200,000 in school debt with no realistic opportunity to ever earn enough money to repay student loans. Many recent law graduates will be in perpetual debt the remainder of their life paying off undergraduate and law school debt.

The 200 ABA accredited law schools are an entity that is truly a self-perpetuating industry - highly paid law professors do little real teaching, but devote hours of time researching and writing law review articles on such obscure and arcane subjects that only another law professor would be remotely interested. Then there is the LSAT game of luring high LSAT scoring applicants to a particular school on one year scholarships, then jerking the scholarship away when the grades fall below the 50% median. Law school admission, hence the law school's "ranking", is based substantially on applicant LSAT/GPA scores, with the LSAT the predominate factor. You "game" the LSAT, you push the school's percieved ranking higher. Failing Law Schools exposes these shams.

A great book and a great service to the legal profession and to the public at large. As a practicing lawyer approaching 25 years since bar admission, this is one book that should be widely read by members of the bench and bar and the general public as well. It is time to say "enough is enough" to high-priced legal education of dubious value.
6 helpful votes
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on May 3, 2014
The problem now is the economics of law school do not add up. The tuition is too high except for the few who get the big law job and slave at it for a least a few years. There has be a big change in legal education but it will not probably happen because the revenues for law schools will drop off with fewer students and less ability to charge high tuition. Some of the law schools will have to close in the future.
1 helpful vote
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on July 7, 2012
This is the best, and perhaps, only book to discuss the law school crisis. The crisis is one of academic overproduction of law graduates at enormous expense to society and the graduates themselves. In practice, this has meant huge increases in tuition (far above the inflation rate) and an employment rate of about 50% for law graduates. It will only get worse until education is reformed. The Professor has shown great courage in taking on the system. The book is well-written and well-argued.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the discussion of the early-20th century when the ABA squeezed out the two-year law schools with accreditation standards that forced those schools to add one additional year and required those schools to hire tenured professors. The ABA requirements also mean that schools have to maintain large paper libraries, even when those libraries are now obsolete. Tamanaha argues that the burdensome requirements were designed to keep people out of the profession so that lawyers could earn above-average wages. The irony is that despite the requirements, law schools produce 2 graduates for every entry-level job each year.

Tamanaha also takes on the deceptive marketing of the law schools, in which many schools claimed to have employment rates of 95% or better.

The weakest part of the book is the suggestions for reform. The professor wants to cap the amount of student loans per school - to an amount like $60 million. He notes that if loans are capped per student the schools will only add more students. The professor's proposals for reform are rather weak, given the nature of the problem. The law school mess has caused fallen hardest on the young people - those who should be building the future of the profession. We have to do better than recommend a bogus cap on law school loans. We need to address the long-term problem that schools are graduating people (who then pass the bar) who are not qualified to practice law in the real world. The students learn the truth years after they have incurred large nondischargeable debts.

We have to find a way to reduce the cost of legal education so that the students can enter the market and not go broke if they cannot find a job.
5 helpful votes
6 helpful votes
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on February 18, 2013
As a college professor for over 20 years, today's average colleges have followed this model and failed our young people. Brian has performed a public service by exposing the flaws in our educational environment.
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5 helpful votes
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on July 11, 2012
Though a short read at 187 pages, Mr. Tamanaha's book covers quite a bit of ground in that it: lays out the history of law school; the roles the ABA and the AALS have had in shaping the structure of law schools; the relationship and distinction between the academic and professional practice of law; an overview of the shameless gaming law schools have made with the US News and World ranking system to attract students; and a discussion of the "reverse-robin hood" finance structure (see page 98) which taxes those students least likely to find gainful employment after graduation to support those students most likely to find lucrative legal jobs following graduation.

If you are a student considering a legal career, this book is a "must read" prior to sitting for the LSAT. The calculus prospective students should make (page 155-157), which sets out a theoretical "monthly budget" for new lawyers starting out, should be mandatory reading for all prospective law students, as this monthly budget will become your life if you took out loans during law school. Additionally, the overview of the ranking system used by Law Schools and big firms will be useful in helping potential law students find out what their career prospects are in light of the school they are attending.

If you are an attorney, judge or professor, I would read this book to understand the crisis rising in the legal profession in regards to oversupply of lawyers with no practical experience and incredible student loan debt. The discussion of the forces and history that shaped the current legal education model are also a worthwhile return on the time invested in reading this book.
15 helpful votes
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on September 6, 2012
Failing Law Schools (Chicago Series in Law and Society) A very insightful discussion of law schools and their motivation to misrepresent the market for lawyers and a graduates chances of landing a job in that market. Eye opening!
4 helpful votes
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