The Education Action Network

Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools

From the Selected Works of Paul Campos
January 2012
The Crisis of the American Law School
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I generally did well in law school--I was one of the students who "got it." I graduated with honors,
honor society, journal etc., and I managed to land an associate position at a large regional firm in
the same city. Though I had fully intended to work for a non-profit or a legal services-type
organization, my debt load prevented it, and I felt I had to take a job at a firm. I worked for just
over a year and was laid off in late 2009. Since losing my job it has been a downward spiral.
Though I am incredibly grateful for what I have, I cannot help but wish for more: I have a JD with
honors, an LLM from the top tax school in the country, and meaningful work experience. Yet, I
cannot land a full-time, permanent job. I am lucky to have health insurance, but I have no time off.
No sick time. My work situation is flexible (I can come in late/leave early for an appointment, etc.),
but I only get paid for the hours I work. I am extremely grateful that it is unlikely I will default on
my loans--thus far, I have been able to manage my nearly $250,000 debt with Income-Based
Repayment and unemployment forbearance.
I know that I am better off than a lot of these younger lawyers. That I qualified for unemployment
is huge. I get job interviews. I can afford the apartment I share with my friend. I have a great
resume. I am an excellent researcher and writer. I rarely go to bed hungry anymore. I just have to
be patient. As soon as the economy picks up I'll get a permanent job. Right...?
I am discouraged. I'm humiliated and demoralized. Worse yet, I am not challenged on a daily
basis. I've resigned myself to the fact that I will never have a career. I won't have retirement savings.
I will be living paycheck-to-paycheck for the next few years. I will continue to be immune to the
rejection letters I receive in response to the litany of resumes and cover letters I send out daily (if I
even receive indication that my resume was received). I will be just another number in this
generation of lawyers who will fall by the wayside.
Excerpted from a Letter from 2007 law school graduate to the author, dated
August 23, 2011
The economist Herbert Stein once remarked that if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.1
Over the past four decades the cost of legal education in America has seemed to belie this
aphorism: it has gone up relentlessly. Private law school tuition increased by a factor of four in
real, inflation-adjusted terms between 1971 and 2011, while resident tuition at public law schools
1 Herb Stein’s Unfamiliar Quotations, Slate Magazine, May 16, 1997. Quoted in a slightly different
form in William D. Henderson and Rachel M. Zahorsky, “The Law School Bubble: How Long Will It
Last If Law Grads Can’t Pay the Bills?” ABA Journal, January 1, 2012.
has nearly quadrupled in real terms over just the past two decades.2 Meanwhile for more than 30
years now the percentage of the American economy devoted to legal services has been shrinking.
In 1978 the legal sector accounted for 2.01% of the nation’s GDP: by 2009 that figure had shrunk
to 1.37% -- a 32% decrease.3
These two trends are not mutually sustainable. If the cost of becoming a lawyer continues to rise
while the economic advantage conferred by a law degree continues to fall then eventually both the
market for new lawyers and for admission to law school will crash. In the early years of the 21st
century, this abstract theoretical observation has begun been confirmed by concrete events. The
ongoing contraction in the employment market for new lawyers has combined with the continuing
increase in the cost of legal education to produce what many now recognize as a genuine crisis for
both law schools and the legal profession.
This article has four parts. Part I describes the increase in the cost of American legal education
over the past four decades. Part II explains some of the most important factors that have driven
that increase. Part III explores what consequences this increased cost has had for recent law
graduates and current law students, in the context of the changing employment market for law
school graduates. Part IV summarizes the situation, as well as considers what sorts of immediate
and long-term changes are likely to take place in the structure of what I argue has become a
fundamentally unsustainable institution: the contemporary American law school.
When I enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School in the fall of 1986, first-year tuition for
Michigan residents was $4,420. Adjusting for inflation, this was the equivalent of just over $9,000
in 2011 dollars. If I had enrolled at the law school 15 years earlier I would have paid only $800 –
the equivalent of $4,443 in 2011 dollars.4 From the present perspective that seems like quite a
bargain: in 2011-2012 first-year law students who were Michigan residents paid $46,800 in tuition
and fees.5 Remarkably, over the past four decades the real, inflation-adjusted cost of resident
2 Figures for private and public law school tuition are taken from American Bar Association
reports. See
checkdam.pdf. Throughout this article, I adjust nominal dollar figures for inflation based on a
standard CPI calculator, found here:
3 Matt Leichter, “A Profession in Decline, BEA Legal Sector Data (1977-)“
Leichter is citing BEA data. See
4 Michigan Law School tuition figures since 1950 are available here:
tuition at Michigan’s law school has increased more than ten-fold. Over the same period, nonresident
tuition has increased in real terms by a factor of “only” 4.4.
In this regard, Michigan’s law school is far from unique. The school at which I teach charged $975
in tuition to state residents thirty years ago (the equivalent of $2,413 in 2011 dollars), and charges
more than $31,000 today.6 As a matter of economic reality, public legal education in America is
ceasing to exist: many public law schools now charge more in resident tuition than even the most
expensive private schools charged just a few years ago – this despite the fact that private law school
tuition has also skyrocketed over the course of the last generation.7 As disturbing as the rise in
private law school tuition has been, the gradual elimination of any apparent political commitment
to legal education as a public good is perhaps even more troubling,
In what follows, I am going to present historical tuition data in terms of inflation-adjusted, 2011
dollars. This will allow readers to get a sense of the extent to which the cost of going to law school
has changed in real economic terms. Here, for example, is the change in the tuition and fees
charged by Harvard Law School, in 2011 dollars, over the course of the past four decades:
1971: $12,386
1981: $15,862
1991: $27,207
2001: $35,817
2012: $50,880
Over the last four decades, Harvard’s tuition has more than quadrupled in real, inflation-adjusted
terms, and has nearly doubled in just the past 20 years.8
Here are the figures, again in 2011 dollars, for median resident tuition at ABA-accredited public
law schools:
1985: $3,746
1995: $7,201
2005: $13,944
2011: $20,076
6 Historical tuition figures for the University of Colorado are based on the school’s catalogue.
7 See footnote __ supra and accompanying text.
8 Harvard tuition numbers are taken from the Harvard Law School annual catalogue, available
on line here:
Now here are the numbers for private law schools, again in 2011 dollars:
1985: $15,438
1995: $24,988
2005: $33,021
2011: $39,9159
Since the mid-1980s private law school tuition has increased by 161.5% in real inflation-adjusted
terms, while public law school resident tuition has increased by an astounding 396.8% over
inflation.10 The growth of resident tuition at individual public law schools over just the past 15
years is breathtaking (again, all figures are in constant 2011 dollars): Minnesota has gone from
$11,890 to $35,000; Ohio State from $5,860 to $27,800; Texas from $5,340 to $27,748; Illinois
from $7,225 to $40,600.11 Recently the University of California-Berkeley became the first public
law school to charge a resident tuition of more than $50,000, but several more seem sure to
follow.12 Meanwhile, according to one projection, tuition at nearly a dozen law schools will be over
$70,000 (that’s per year) by the end of the decade. 13
To get a better sense of what these numbers mean in regard to how expensive American legal
education has become for the average American family, let us return for a moment to the
University of Michigan Law School. Recall that in 1971 annual resident tuition was $4,443 in 2011
dollars. In that year, median household income in America was $49,709 in 2011 dollars.14 One
year’s resident tuition at what was then and remains now one of the nation’s pre-eminent law
schools cost almost exactly a month’s (pre-tax) income for the average American household.
In 2011, median household income in America was $49,909, i.e., almost exactly what it was 40
years earlier.15 But now the average American household would need to spend slightly less than an
entire year’s worth of pre-tax income to pay for a year’s resident tuition at Michigan Law School.
9 [I calculated these figures from an ABA web page of historical data that has apparently been
deleted. Will try to find it elsewhere]
10 See footnote __ supra.
11 1995 nominal tuition figures for these schools can be found here: Again I have adjusted the nominal figures for inflation.
13 Matt Leichter, “Private Law School Tuition Projections,”
14 See United States Census, Historical Income Tables,
15 “Recession Officially Over, U.S. Incomes Kept Falling,” New York Times, October 9, 2011.
Here is the change over time in the percentage of pre-tax annual income that the median
American household would have to pay for resident tuition at Michigan:
1970: 7.9%
1980: 11.3%
1990: 22.8%
2000: 49.3%
2011: 93.8%16
Note that over this time span, during which median household income saw essentially no net
growth, the nation’s real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product more than tripled, and more
than doubled in per capita terms. 17 To put it another way America is, overall, three times richer
than it was 40 years ago, while the cost of attending law school has increased by a factor of four at
elite private law schools, and by a factor of more than ten for resident students at the nation’s most
elite public law school. Estimated total cost of attendance for most law schools is now more than
$150,000, and has topped $200,000 at many.18 Meanwhile, the average American family enjoys
$17 more per month in income than it did four decades ago.
All of this has taken place within the larger context of higher education in America. While it has
not risen nearly as fast as the cost of law school, undergraduate tuition has increased far faster than
inflation over the past generation, and almost all law schools require applicants to have completed
a four-year undergraduate degree before enrolling.19 Since family incomes have stagnated for most
Americans over the course of the last generation, this has required many families to debt-finance
their children’s college educations. The inevitable result is that many students enter law school
already carrying significant educational debt. According one four-year-old estimate, the average
amount of educational debt carried by graduates of four-year colleges who had such debt at the
time of their graduation was nearly $25,000.20
16 I calculated these percentages by comparing tuition figures to the median household income
in the relevant year, as reported by the Census. See footnote 15 supra.
17 “What Was the U.S. GDP Then?” Measuring Worth,
18 For example George Washington Law School estimates the annual cost of attendance for the
2011-12 academic year, in the form of tuition, fees and nine months of cost of living expenses, as
$74,400. The total cost of a law
degree at many public law schools now exceeds what an average private law school
education cost just a few years ago.
19 “Law School Tuition Soars,” New York Times, July 17, 2011.
20 This figure is based on graduates of four-year colleges who graduated in 2007-2008. With
tuition increases continuing to outrun inflation, the most current figures are undoubtedly higher in
real dollar as well as nominal terms. See
Approximately two thirds of college gradutes incur undergraduate debt.
A legal education, which a generation ago was easily within the financial reach of the American
middle class, and was to some extent a realistic career option even for people of more modest
socio-economic backgrounds, has now become an enormously expensive investment. And, given
how the employment market for people with law degrees has changed over this same time, that
investment has become (except for the unambiguously wealthy) a remarkably risky gamble. How
did this happen?
Why has legal education become so expensive? This section discusses several key factors: drastic
declines in student-faculty ratios; large increases in faculty compensation; the creation and
development of clinical legal education; the expansion of administrative staffs; and expensive
capital construction projects have all played a significant role. A generation ago the typical
American law school featured large classes (clinical classes were rare to non-existent), a high
tenure-track faculty to student ratio, significant numbers of inexpensive adjunct instructors, no
laboratory equipment, and a generally unprepossessing physical plant.21 Even at many elite
universities, the law faculty had, in comparison to their colleagues in other departments, relatively
little in the way of academic ambition or pretension. The typical law school faculty who published
scholarship regularly after the completion of an often-cursory tenure process was very much the
exception rather than the rule.22
Given these conditions and expectations, law school faculty often had relatively heavy teaching
loads: five to six classes a year was a normal load at most schools, while the four classes taught per
year by the faculties of a few elite schools was considered a luxury of such privileged positions.23 At
almost all schools, administrative support for both the tenure-track faculty and the student body
was minimal: faculty were expected to handle tasks such as admissions and financial aid, while
students looking for job opportunities were more likely expected to consult a bulletin board than
to have access to anything like a contemporary career services office.24
A. Student-Faculty Ratios
21 See generally Brian Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming
22 See Richard A. Posner, “Legal Scholarship Today,” 115 Harv. L. Rev. 1314 (2002).
23 See Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, cited in note __ supra.
24 I can attest to much of this change first-hand even though I have been a legal academic
“only” since 1990. A glance at the personnel listings in law school catalogues and in the AALS
Directory of Law Teachers will confirm the enormous growth in the number of administrative
personnel at American law schools over the course of the last generation.
Over the past thirty years, and especially over the past fifteen, this situation has altered
dramatically. Consider what has happened to faculty-student ratios. Currently, for the purposes of
accreditation, an ABA-accredited law school’s faculty to student ratio is calculated as follows: each
full-time tenure-track member counts as one faculty position, while faculty members who teach
full-time but are not on the tenure track (as is often the case with clinical and legal research and
writing professors) each count as .7 of a position. Adjunct professors count as .2 of a position.
Non-tenure track faculty may not account for more than 20% of a school’s faculty-student ratio for
the purposes of accreditation. Under the current accreditation standards, “a ratio of 20:1 or less
presumptively indicates that a school complies with the standards,” while “a ratio of 30:1
presumptively indicates that the school does not” (ratios between 20:1 and 30:1 create no
presumption one way or the other).25
The putative purpose of these standards is to maintain educational standards; their functional
purpose is to maintain barriers to entry to low-cost competitors, and to protect the privileges of
current tenure-track faculty at ABA-accredited schools. The idea that a law school with a facultyto-
student ratio of 30:1 presumptively fails to provide a minimally adequate legal education to its
students is, within even the narrowest of historical contexts, problematic. After all, as recently as
1978 the average faculty to student ratio at ABA-accredited law schools was 29:1, meaning that
nearly half of all such schools would have been out of compliance with the current accreditation
standards. 26
In fact, faculty-to-student ratios have dropped dramatically at law schools, not merely since 1978,
but over just the past decade. For example, Harvard’s ratio fell from 21.6 to 1 in 1998 (which is to
say Harvard Law School’s faculty-student ratio 14 years ago wasn’t even presumptively adequate
under the ABA’s current standards) to 10.3 to 1 in 2008. Stanford’s ratio fell even more
drastically, from 18.3 to 1 to 8.3 to 1, while Chicago’s went from 19.1 to 1 to 10.3 to 1. This
pattern was not confined to elite schools, in part because schools farther down the law school
hierarchy tend to copy whatever elite schools are doing. Thus in the course of the same decade
Emory went from 19.1 to 1 to 10.8 to 1, Seton Hall went from 26 to 1 to 15.5 to 1, and Widener
went from 24.8 to 1 to 13.7 to 1.27 And ratios are continuing to drop: in the spring of 2012 Dean
Larry Kramer announced that as part of Stanford’s ongoing efforts to protect and improve its
ranking (Stanford moved from third to second in the U.S. News and World Report Law School
Rankings in 2012) the school was going to expand its tenure-track faculty by 25%.28 Overall,
25 See 2011-2012 Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools,
26 The National Jurist, “Law School Faculties 40% Larger Than Ten Years Ago,” March 9, 2010.
27 Id.
28 Kramer made these remarks to members of the Stanford Law School student body at a “town
hall” meeting in February, 2012.
faculty-to-student ratios at ABA-accredited schools were cut in half between the late 1970s and the
early years of the 21st century, going from 29:1 to 14.7 to 1.29
What consequences has this enormous increase in the number of law school faculty had for legal
education? One thing that has not followed is anything like a corresponding decline in the size of
law school classes. Large lecture sections are still the staple of American legal education. Instead,
the primary effect of this change has been to reduce the teaching loads of faculty, particularly
tenure-track faculty. At present, it appears that almost all “top tier” (ranked in the top 50 by U.S.
News) have moved to a formal three-course teaching load for tenure-track faculty, while at elite
schools generous research leave and sabbatical policies make the functional teaching load closer to
two classes per academic year.30 Meanwhile a number of lower-ranked schools are also adopting
three-course teaching loads, at least for more “productive” faculty (this means people who publish
higher numbers of law review articles).31
Thus over the course of the last four decades, American law schools have moved from a system in
which faculty at a few elite law schools taught four classes per year, while faculty at other schools
generally taught five or six, to a system in which those numbers have been reduced by nearly 50%
at elite schools, and by nearly as much at many non-elite schools as well.32 As we are about to see,
this change has played a considerable role in driving up the cost of legal education. But before
turning to the specific financial consequences of this change, we should not overlook the fact that
the enormous increase in spending on faculty compensation at law schools in recent years has been
dedicated largely to goals other than improving the classroom experience of law students.
B. Faculty Compensation
Law schools have greatly increased the size of their faculties in order to ensure that individual
faculty could teach less. And they have done this in order to ensure that faculty would publish
more law review articles. In regard to this goal, at least, American law schools have enjoyed
spectacular success. A survey of the legal academic literature reveals that professors at American
29 National Jurist, footnote ___ supra.
30 Gordon Smith, “Law Professor Teaching Loads,” Conglomerate Blog, April 12, 2005. As for the
functional teaching loads at elite law schools, I was informed by the dean of Northwestern Law
School in the fall of 1996 that the average teaching load at the school over a multi-year period
was seven credit hours per year, i.e., two classes. Conversations with members of similarly ranked
law schools confirm this has become a common de facto teaching schedule, at least as a
matter of informal practice.
31 In the fall of 2011, a faculty member at a law school ranked close to number 100 (that is the
midpoint) in the U.S. News and World Report rankings told me that the dean had announced
the school was moving to a standard three-course teaching load. The faculty member noted
that, despite the combination of skyrocketing tuition costs and dire job prospects for the school’s
most recent graduates, this announcement encountered no objections.
32 Historical teaching loads for law school faculty are catalogued in Tamanaha, Failing Law
Schools. See footnote ___ supra.
law schools published approximately 1650 law review articles in 1970 and nearly 10,000 in 2010.33
Over that time, the total number of tenure-track law professors has roughly doubled, while the per
capita publication rate of law review articles per professor has nearly tripled, resulting in this
approximately six-fold increase in the size of the annual law review literature.34
This explosion in publication rates has naturally required a huge increase in the venues for legal
academic writing. Forty years ago very few law schools published more than one law review, and
some did not publish even one. In 2010 the Current Index to Legal Periodicals catalogued 616
law reviews, while omitting to track a number of venues in which legal academic publications
appear, such as purely on-line journals, of which there are now dozens.35
How much has all this cost? Cutting faculty-to student ratios by 50% would, holding everything
else constant, double the portion of law school budgets dedicated to faculty compensation. But
everything else has not remained constant. Individual law school faculty compensation has
increased dramatically over the course of the past generation. Precise numbers on this question
are difficult to obtain for a variety of reasons. At private law schools, salary figures are confidential,
and even at public schools overall compensation packages, which now can include a number of
features beyond base salary, such as so-called summer research money (at most schools this has
become a de facto salary supplement), subsidized housing, low-interest loans, and retention
bonuses, can be hard to calculate. Still, the general pattern is clear: at elite law schools,
compensation for tenure-track faculty has roughly doubled in real terms over the course of the past
30 years. At non-elite schools the increase in compensation levels has varied more, but given that
almost all increased spending at law schools is set by the rules of a positional game in which nonelites
attempt to imitate elite schools to the extent possible, it is probable that faculty compensation
all across legal academia has increased sharply over the past three decades.
As for specific numbers, we can begin with Chief Justice John Roberts’ observation that salaries for
federal judges are now “about half” of salaries for senior faculty at elite law schools (It’s unclear if
the Chief Justice is including all sources of faculty compensation in his analysis of faculty salaries,
which is based on his access to confidential documents).36 Since at the time Roberts’ made his
33 I derived these figures by examining statistically representative samples of both the Current
Index to Legal Periodicals and individual volumes of particular law reviews. Specifically, I
examined 30 randomly selected pages from the Index in both 1970 and 2010 and noted the
total number of law review articles they catalogued. I then extrapolated this number to the
Index as a whole. I double-checked this estimate by examining the annual volumes of 12
representative law reviews in each year, noting how many articles these reviews published, and
extrapolating on the basis of that figure.
34 The number of tenure-track law faculty is based on surveys of the 1970-1971, 1990-991, and
2010-2011 volumes of the annual Association of American Law Schools Directory of Law
35 See Current Index to Legal Periodicals, electronic version available at
36 See “Chief Justice Advocates Higher Pay For Judiciary,” New York Times, January 1, 2007,
comments in a report to Congress, pleading for higher pay for the federal judiciary, federal district
and circuit court judges were paid $169,000 and $179,000 respectively, this suggests senior faculty
at elite schools earn around $350,000.
A survey of faculty compensation at high-ranked public law schools confirms that the Chief
Justice’s estimate is not an exaggeration, and may even be an understatement. For instance, at the
University of Texas Law School, a lawsuit brought by a faculty member revealed not only the
compensation packages of the law school’s faculty, but how deceptive the available public records
regarding faculty salaries can be.37
According to a searchable internet data base of University of Texas employee salaries, the salaries
of Texas’s law school faculty (excluding administrative salaries) in 2010-11 ran from $135,000 to
$272,404.38 The actual numbers, as revealed by the lawsuit, were in many cases nearly 50% higher.
The public records don’t include summer research money, which for most faculty was equivalent
to one third of their base salaries. Nor did it include retention bonus money, structured in the
form of “forgivable loans,” given by the dean to 25 faculty members (and, more problematically, to
himself – a fact that when made public forced his resignation).39 The result was that much of the
law school’s senior faculty was making between $320,000 and $410,000 in 2010 -- with the top half
of that range being higher than Chief Justice Roberts’ estimate regarding senior faculty
compensation at top schools.
Data from other top public law schools reveals somewhat lower compensation packages than those
given to faculty at Texas, although this might be in part because the financial data is less
comprehensive than that which would be turned by litigation. Nor does the total listed
compensation, at Texas or elsewhere, include deferred benefits, such as employer contributions to
pension plans, which at many schools are equivalent to 10% of a faculty member’s salary. Still, a
search of an online database reveals that in 2010 15 law professors in the University of California
system had base salaries and summer research support that equaled at least $308,000 (with a high
of $360,000).40 And keep in mind that the half-dozen highest-ranked law schools, including those
with the largest private endowments, are all private institutions, so it seems likely these schools are
37 The relevant documents can be viewed here:
SCHOOL+SCALE&base=&overtime=&extra=&gross=&year=2010&s=gross. This index lists only
compensation from university system and not from private endowments, so it may represent a
significant understatement of the total number of professors receiving compensation packages
of at least $300,000.
paying their faculty at least as much as Texas is paying its professors, especially considering how
much higher the cost of living is in Cambridge, Chicago, and New York than in Austin.41
While in general the higher a school is ranked the higher its salary scale will be for its faculty, the
$300,000+ compensation packages paid to professors at elite and sub-elite institutions has a ripple
effect throughout legal academia, as lower-ranked schools fight to hold onto their most productive42
faculty. For instance, three years ago the fifteen highest-paid faculty members of the University of
Illinois College of law made between $203,000 and $293,000 in base salary alone (not counting
summer research money).43 And a perusal of IRS Form 990, which requires non-profit
organizations to list the compensation packages of their highest paid officers and employees,
reveals that professorial salaries in the $300,000 range are far from unheard-of even at second and
third-tier schools.44 In his forthcoming book Failing Law Schools, Brian Tamanaha, a law
professor at Washington University St. Louis (and a former law school dean), estimates that faculty
compensation packages (not counting benefits) of over $200,000 are now commonplace for full
professors at a wide variety of schools.45
Historical data regarding law professor salaries is harder to come by. Returning to Chief Justice
Roberts’ complaint regarding judicial salaries, the Chief Justice reveals that senior professors at
Harvard Law School were paid $28,000 in 1969, which is $171,000 in 2011 dollars. 46This
suggests, in light of the data presented above, that Harvard Law School faculty salaries have more
than doubled since then. In order to analyze this question in a more systematic fashion, I
compared the salaries of the University of Michigan law faculty in 1981 to those of the same faculty
in 2011. The base salary of the tenure-track faculty in 1981 ranged from $31,000 to $67,000, that
41 “If Texas professors are compensated at this level, given the nature of the market it is likely
many professors at top five law schools are in the $300,000-$400,000 range, with some earning
more.” Brian Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools, footnote __ supra.
42 Again, despite the variety of tasks legal academics perform in the course of their professional
duties, “productivity” in legal academia is measured almost exclusively by how many law review
articles a faculty member publishes, especially in what are considered prominent venues. See
footnote __ supra and accompanying text.
Summer research stipends vary enormously between schools, so their absence from public data
bases which record official faculty compensation poses a serious barrier to comparing salaries
even between public law schools. These stipends are usually either a percentage of a faculty
member’s base salary, or a flat figure for all faculty members who receive them. I have found
current summer research stipends ranging from $8000 to $93,000.
44 Form 990 disclosures can be searched here:
45 At my school, approximately half of the tenured faculty receives annual compensation
packages, in base salary and summer support, exceeding $200,000. According to a recent
report submitted by the law school to the University of Colorado’s central administration the law
school’s compensation structure lags behind that of many of our “peer schools” (defined as law
schools at “flagship” state universities).
46 See Roberts footnote 37 supra
is, from $77,000 to $165,000 in 2011 dollars.47 The base salary of the tenure-track faculty in 2011
ranged from $162,000 to $294,000. 48In 2011, faculty summer research support was 15% of base
salary, meaning that the functional base salary of the faculty actually ranged from $186,000 to
$338,000.49 Remarkably, a brand new assistant professor at Michigan makes nearly as much, in
real dollars, as the highest-paid member of the faculty made 30 years earlier. Even more
remarkably, this brand new professor makes more than the dean of the law school made in 1981.
The law school’s dean was paid $164,510, in 2011 dollars, in 1981. In 2011, the dean was paid
This data reinforces Chief Justice Roberts’ data, suggesting that direct faculty compensation at top
law schools has roughly doubled over the course of the last generation. Of course pecuniary
compensation is only part of the story: as we have seen, teaching loads have shrunk significantly
over this same time frame.50 Nor have we yet touched on one of the most important changes to the
structure of law school teaching over the course of the last generation: the transformation of clinical
legal education from a marginal feature of a few legal academic institutions into a comparatively
central and well-funded enterprise at most law schools.
C. The Birth of the Clinic
The birth and expansion of legal aid clinics in law schools has had three effects on American legal
education: it has increased the amount of practically-oriented legal education some students get; it
has allowed traditional tenure-track faculty to rationalize paying relatively little attention to actual
legal practice r and it has played a role in driving up the cost of legal education. Complaints that
law school teaches students nothing about practice are hardly new.51
Legal aid clinics were, among other things, originally a response to those complaints. In this regard
they have had some effect; but whether that effect has been to make law school graduates more
47 Base salary data is available in the archives of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of
Michigan. In 1981 the law school paid faculty members who received them summer stipends
equivalent to approximately one-sixth of their base salaries, i.e., slightly more in percentage
terms than the 15% of base salary current faculty members receive (although from a far smaller
base). I am indebted to Professor Edward Cooper for this information.
48 See
49 Current salary information for the Michigan Law School faculty can be found here:
50 It’s worth noting that grading exams – perhaps the most unpleasant task that those who
perform this remarkably pleasant job are required to do – has also become far easier over the
course of the last ten to fifteen years. Gone are the days when the leisure of the theory class was
interrupted by the burden of having to decipher the panicked scrawls of hundreds of students,
spread across thousands of pages of blue books. Indeed today some professors employ
computer technology to grade multiple choice exams, thus eliminating a few dozen of the most
painful of the few hundred hours per year a legal academic is formally required to dedicate to
his or her job.
51 See for example Duncan Kennedy’s celebrated essay, Legal Education and the Reproduction
of Hierarchy, 32 J. Legal Educ. 591 (1982), which treats the claim that law students “learn nothing
about practice” as completely self-evident.
practice-ready than they would have been otherwise is debatable. Theclinical legal experience no
doubt helps those students who participate in it to have a better sense of what at least some forms
of legal practice involve; however, the majority of law students complete their legal educations
without having participated in a clinic.52 This fact raises a question: what effect does the availability
of clinical legal education have on what goes on in the traditional, “doctrinal” classroom? If the
effect is to make doctrinal legal education even less practical than it would otherwise be -- because
the doctrinal faculty believes, either consciously or otherwise, that students learn the nuts and bolts
of legal practice in clinical classes that in fact most law students never take – then paradoxically
clinical legal education may have a net effect of making legal education as a whole less practical
than ever for the average student.
This becomes a particularly pressing issue when one considers how expensive by its nature clinical
legal education must be. Since instructor to participant ratios must be very low, and clinics require
significant administrative support, clinics cost a lot of money.53 Yet, in response to regular
complaints from the legal profession that law school is too “theoretical,” law schools continue to
expand their clinical programs, without much in the way of evidence regarding whether the costs
they incur are justified by the results they produce in regard to producing “practice-ready”
D. New Buildings Full of People
The birth of the clinic is just one example of how many of what were once understood to be the
job responsibilities of the tenure-track faculty have been off-loaded to new classes of law school
employees. A generation ago, classes in legal research and writing, to the extent that they were
taught at all, were taught at almost all schools by the tenure-track faculty, rather than by full-time
faculty members hired for that specific purpose.55 Outside of the classroom, the administrative
duties of law professors have declined considerably: No longer are professors, whether at elite or
non-elite law schools, generally expected to do the heavy lifting in the admissions office, or in
distributing financial aid, or in regard to all the functions now outsourced, as it were, to career
services personnel, fundraising officers, public relations specialists, alumni liaisons, etc. As noted
above, all these changes in regard to the nature of a legal academic’s work load have taken place
52 “Papers From AALS Conference Workshop on Clinical Legal Education at a Generational
Crossroads: Shades of Gray,” 17 Clinical L. Rev. 223 (2010).
53 See Chemerinksy, Rethinking Legal Education, 595 Harv. Civ. R Civ. L. L. R. 2008
54 See, for example, the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the
Profession of Law (2008), and its 1992 predecessor, the American Bar Association’s MacCrate
Report. Note that by “too theoretical” critics generally mean “too doctrinal,” which is certainly
a contestable characterization of how genuinely theoretical – or edifying – the traditional
doctrinal law school classroom actually is. See Kennedy, note __ supra.
55 As recently as 25 years ago, when I was a first-year law student at a resource-rich institution,
legal research and writing classes at Michigan Law School were taught by third-year law
students to first year students, rather than by LRW faculty.
for the primary purpose of allowing law faculty to publish far more law review articles than they did
a generation ago -- and publish they have.56
Of course this outsourcing has itself incurred considerable extra expense: law school administrative
staffs have grown at a far faster pace than even the rapidly expanding tenure-track faculties of ABAaccredited
schools. The number of full-time administrators who also teach – deans, librarians,
and other law school personnel – more than tripled in the ten years from 1998 to 2008, from 528
to 1,659.57 And while there are no national statistics on how much administrative staffs in general
have grown, a comparison of a typical law school catalogue from even ten or fifteen years ago to
the current version of the same document will reveal something approaching exponential growth in
the institution’s administrative apparatus.
The explosion in the number of law school faculty and administrative staff, both in absolute terms
and relative to student enrollment, is both a cause and a consequence of the veritable mania for
capital construction projects which has gripped higher education in general and law schools in
particular over the past generation. In recent years dozens of law schools have built new main
buildings, or expanded existing facilities, even when they already possessed impressive and even
magnificent physical plants.58 Law school building campaigns are often classic examples of
conspicuous consumption at the social-institutional, rather than the individual, level: School A
builds a fancy new building, and as a result School B discovers that it "needs" a new building too, in
order to keep up with the academic Jones's.).59
Now it is true that building campaigns are generally funded via some combination of private
money, the university's general fund, and, at public schools, tax dollars. But when such efforts fall
short, part of the direct cost can end up being transferred to law students. Another complicating
factor is that to some extent money is, as law students learn to say, fungible: a dollar spent on the
physical plant is to a degree a dollar that isn't going to be spent on something else, such as for
example holding down tuition increases. (The law school at which I teach began constructing a new
56 A law professor who read a law review article every day of the year would spend 28 years
reading the law review literature published by professors at American law schools in 2010 alone.
57 “Law School Faculties 40% Larger Than Ten Years Ago,” National Jurist, March 9, 2010. Keep in
mind that the “deans” referred to in this statistic do not include the dean of the law school.
While a generation ago it was not unusual for a law school’s dean to teach at least one class
per year, such double duty would be considered wholly unreasonable in an age when a law
school dean’s job has come to be dominated by constant fundraising and the attendant
frequent flyer miles.
58 Michigan Law School is in the process of completing a $102 million addition to the superb
Oxbridge-style quadrangle that houses the institution. See
59 One can see this same process taking place all over the university, as schools build posh dorms,
recreation centers, etc., to compete for students, who generally don't realize that they and/or their
families are purchasing such amenities at far too high a price. This phenomenon has been
referred to as an “amenities race.” See
building at a time when the same sum of money necessary to build it could have generated an
income stream that would have provided full-tuition scholarships for half the student body). In
addition it seems quite odd to be pumping ever-greater sums into bricks and mortar, given changes
in information technology that should be making it much cheaper to deliver education outside of
contexts that require hundreds of people to all gather together in a $100 million structure at the
same time.60 This point applies with special force to law libraries, which grow ever-more pharaonic
even as the practice of law becomes ever-less book-based, and law students find it less and less
necessary or desirable to use these literary labyrinths, even as opulent study spaces.
A more insidious complication should be obvious to anyone who has ever bought a house that was
somewhat bigger and fancier than the purchaser's previous residence. What happens in such
circumstances is that people feel impelled by something almost akin to a kind of social gravitational
force to fill their new houses up with things they would not have bought if they did not have all that
new space to fill. The same thing happens in academia: An institution sinks enormous capital,
both literally and metaphorically, into getting an impressive new building with much more space
than was available in what in retrospect becomes its intolerably inadequate prior facilities, and as if
by magic all sorts of new "centers" and "groups" and, most of all, administrative personnel, appear
almost overnight.61
E. Other Drivers of Increased Costs
Decreasing faculty to student ratios, increasing faculty compensation, legal aid clinics and legal
writing programs, greatly expanded administrative staffs, and newer more expensive facilities are
not the only reasons why the cost of law school has increased several times over in real terms over
the course of the past generation. There is some evidence that higher starting salaries at large law
60 Consider for example the remarkably successful initiative undertaken recently by faculty at
Stanford to offer free on line courses in Computer Science. See
61 Now of course it is not as if all these additions do not have some real educational value. For
example, all other things being equal it is no doubt desirable to have six career services persons
housed in a suite of nice new offices, doing what they can to help students and graduates get jobs.
The problem, of course, is that all other things are never equal. When I started teaching 21 years
ago, my law school's career services department consisted of one part-time employee who had a
desk in the admissions office. Coming as I did from the resplendent environs of the elite law
school where I had so recently been a student, this seemed on one level rather absurd. On quite
another level, resident tuition was literally one-tenth of what it is today. The point is that, as always,
the question needs to be not does this expenditure improve the quality of what the law school is
doing (whatever that may be), but rather, does it do so at a reasonable cost? Because of the
dysfunctional way in which legal education is priced and paid for, this question is rarely asked as
often or as insistently as it ought to be, by those who are in the best position to affect the answer.
firms increased demand for legal education in the first half of the previous decade.62 At public law
schools, reductions in state subsidies for higher education have played a significant role. Law
schools spend more on self-promotion and advertising than ever before.63 And at some universities
the central administration continues to treat the law school as a revenue source for crosssubsidization
(a so-called “cash cow”), although there is little indication that this percentage has
increased in recent years.
Underlying this financial arms race is the ever-present rationale that to refuse to spend yet more
money on faculty, administration, physical plant, self-promotional efforts, and so forth is not an
option in the constant struggle to rise, or at least not fall too far, in the U.S. News rankings.
(Indeed the rankings actually reward inefficiency quite directly, as expenditures per student are
treated in the ranking formula as a proxy for educational quality.)64 This rationale has created a
negative-sum positional game where one school’s gain is always some other school’s loss, as well as
a classic collective action problem: no school wants to pay the short-term price for bucking a
system that in the long term is not sustainable for the enterprise as a whole.
Nevertheless, while in the long term law schools will pay the price for being unable to break free
from the vicious cycle of having to constantly increase revenue merely to stay in the same place
relative to their competitors, at present that price is being borne most directly by law school
graduates, who year after year pay more and more for an educational credential whose real value
has been declining for some time now. What are the practical consequences of creating a system
of legal education in which most students must now pay somewhere between $150,000 to
$250,000 in direct costs, as well as incurring significant opportunity costs, to become eligible to sit
for the bar exam in the jurisdiction in which they wish to practice? The answer to that question
reveals the scope of the crisis that is now overtaking American legal education.
62 Law school applications rose from about 75,000 in 2000 to nearly 100,000 in 2004. See Between 1997 and 2006
the “going rate” (the salary paid to new associates by the top New York law firms) went from
$116,000 to $160,000 in constant dollars.
63 This has given birth to the ubiquitous phenomenon of so-called “law porn:” glossy publications
which law schools mail out by the thousands to other law faculties, law firms, and the media, in
an attempt to bolster their reputations and thereby positively affect their ranking in the U.S. News
formula. For a skeptical look at the effectiveness of these efforts see
64 The methodology employed in the rankings is explained here:
articles/2012/03/12/methodology-law-school-rankings . Expenditures per student
account for just under 10% of a school’s overall ranking. Faculty-student ratio accounts for
another three per cent, while the total number of books in the law library accounts for threequarters
of one per cent. In other words if School A and School B are identical in all other
respects but School A spends more money to achieve exactly the same results, School A will be
ranked higher than School B.
Part III
Law school now costs too much for two reasons: because there aren’t enough jobs for lawyers,
especially new lawyers, and because too many of the legal jobs that do exist do not pay enough to
justify incurring that cost. This combination of circumstances is a product of long-term changes in
the market for the providers of legal services, and in the way law students finance their legal
education. The result has been the creation of class of deeply indebted, underemployed law
school graduates.65 To this point, the most common response of law schools to this situation has
been denial.66 But, as the extent of the collapse in the market for new law graduates becomes
apparent, denial is slowly giving way to recognition. This section will first outline the employment
and salary situation for recent law graduates. It will then review some of the economic and social
consequences for those graduates of entering a hyper-saturated legal market while carrying
unprecedented levels of educational loan debt. Finally, it will touch on the employment and
under-employment situation for recent graduates of the nation’s elite law schools.67
A. Employment and Salary Outcomes For Recent Law School Graduates
How many recent graduates of American law schools manage to obtain real legal jobs? Of this
group, how many are able to make enough money from the practice of law to justify the cost of
obtaining a law degree? Answering these questions requires looking critically at the statistics
reported by law schools to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and the American
Bar Association. These statistics have many limitations, perhaps the most glaring of which is that
they provide no information on what law school graduates are doing even two years after
graduation, let alone further down the line.68 Instead, they provide a snapshot of what the
members of a national graduating class are doing nine months after completing law school. To
answer the question of how good of a return graduates are getting on their investment, we would
need much better data than we have regarding medium and long-term career outcomes. Still, even
with their limitations, the NALP data can be analyzed in useful ways.
65 For a stark glimpse into the world of marginalized lawyers and law graduates see
66 For instance, a literature search reveals that the phrase “law graduate debt” occurs in exactly
one law review article published in the last five years, and that the relationship between student
debt and the cost of law school has gotten almost no attention In the legal academic literature
to this point.
67 The situation for elite law school graduates is particularly telling because ,if significant numbers
of such graduates are having trouble securing acceptable employment outcomes, this has dire
implications for law school graduates as a whole – the vast majority of whom, of course, do not
attend elite schools.
68 A glimpse of what is happening to the long-term earning potential of attorneys is provided by
a survey conducted by the Alabama bar association, which reveals that the percentage of
attorneys in the state making at least $200,000 and $100,000 per year (in 2009 dollars) fell in half
between 1985 and 2009, and that 23% of attorneys with active licenses were making less than
$25,000 in 2009. See
My analysis is based on the following heuristic: a real legal job consists of full-time long-term
employment that requires a law degree. The economic value of a law degree is largely a product of
the fact that a law degree from an ABA-accredited law school is a prerequisite for admission to the
bar in the vast majority of American jurisdictions. While it is true that some law graduates will
acquire jobs for which a law degree is not required, but which still added marginal value to the
applicant’s resume, it is also true that this category appears to include a small percentage of all law
graduates, and, furthermore, that for many job seekers a law degree turns out to be an impediment
to acquiring non-legal jobs. Indeed, it is unclear whether, for those graduates who do not acquire
legal jobs, a law degree is on average beneficial to them, even without taking the costs of acquiring
the degree into account. Similarly, it is safe to assume that very few people spend $150,000 to
$250,000 in order to qualify for part-time or temporary work.
These definitions allow us to make a basic estimate of the core employment rate -- that is, the
percentage of law graduates who had real legal jobs nine months after graduation -- for the national
law school class of 2010 (the most recent year for which national statistics are available). We can
then compare those numbers to those of national classes over the previous decade, before taking a
generation-long perspective, in an attempt to discern what changes are happening in the market for
the providers of legal services.
According to NALP, ABA-accredited schools produced 44,258 J.D. degree graduates in 2010. As
of February 15, 2011, 25,654, or 58.0%, were known to be holding full-time jobs for which bar
passage was required or expected (the employment status of seven per cent of the class was not
known).69 The fact that less than three of every five law school graduates had secured a full-time
legal job of any kind nine months after graduation ought to be a very alarming figure under any
circumstances, but it is especially alarming given how costly acquiring a law degree has become.
Yet this figure only begins to tell the story of the extent to which recent law school graduates are
struggling. Consider the kinds of jobs that the NALP survey counts as full-time employment
requiring a law degree:
(1) Temporary positions. Graduates whose post-graduation employment consisted of a sixweek-
long contract position to review documents, or a six-month engagement with a
government agency, or a three-month “fellowship” funded by their alma mater, were, as
long as these positions were full-time and required a law degree, counted in the 58%
figure cited above. How many graduates were in temporary positions, which for the
purpose of the jgm survey were defined positions of a definite term of less than one
year? (Note that under this definition a graduate who had a one-year post-graduation
employment contract would not count as temporarily employed). NALP reports that
69 The 2010 NALP statistics can be found here:
26.9% of all employed graduates were in short-term positions. Slightly more than one
third of these positions were judicial clerkships of all types.70
A particularly notable subcategory of short-term positions were those funded by law
schools themselves, to provide their otherwise unemployed graduates with
employment, at least during the NALP reporting period. In April 2012 the ABA for
the first time published school by school data regarding this practice, which revealed
that nearly 5% of all 2010 law school graduates who were employed nine months after
graduation were in such positions. The percentages at some schools, including at some
high ranked institutions, were considerably greater. For example, 10.9% of Virginia
graduates, 11.76% of Georgetown graduates, 11.89% of Vanderbilt graduates, 12.73%
of UCLA graduates, 15.87% of Fordham graduates, and 15.92% of Notre Dame
graduates employed nine months after graduation were employed by their alma
While such programs can be defended as attempts to deal with the genuine
employment crisis facing schools’ graduates, they can also be criticized as attempts to
game a school’s overall graduate employment rate (this of course applies especially to
programs whose existence was not revealed prior to the release of the ABA data), and
even as something like the educational equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, in which current
students pay for the cost of temporary jobs for recent graduates.
(2) Jobs that feature nominal or non-existent salaries. Recently several U.S. Attorney
offices around the country made news in the legal press by offering the opportunity to
work in year-long Special Assistant U.S. Attorney positions. It turned out that the word
“Special” in the job title referred to the fact that these full-time positions, which
70 Judicial clerkships make up an ambiguous category of post-graduation outcomes.
Traditionally, Article III clerkships (which make up perhaps a third of the clerkships taken by 2010
graduates) have been considered a prestigious way station on the road to more permanent
employment. On the other end of the spectrum, state district court clerkships are for most
people who take them truly temporary positions, which leave those in them scrambling to find
legal work afterwards. In any event, the sorts of judicial clerkships that have traditionally been
sought after by graduates made up a small percentage of the more than 10,000 class of 2010
graduates who were in temporary positions nine months after graduation.
71 See Preliminary data indicate
that this practice became more widespread in regard to the class of 2011. For example,
Virginia’s program funded 40 2010 graduates nine months after graduation, and 64 2011
graduates in February 2012. Cornell Law School employed six of its 2010 graduates nine months
after graduation, and 26 of its 2011 graduates in February 2012. The University of Chicago
employed two of its 2010 graduates nine months after graduation, and 25 of its 2011 graduates
at the same juncture. Columbia Law School employed ten of its 2010 graduates, and 38 of its
2011 graduates (All 38 were still employed by the school nine months after graduation, and were
counted as employed full-time by Columbia, although this information did not become public
until May, 2012. See
required applicants to have at the very least a law degree and bar membership, were
completely unpaid.72
This is merely a particularly striking example of a practice that has arisen among
government and non-profit organizations, who can avoid the legal requirement to pay
employees at least what would otherwise be the legal minimum wage. With law
schools churning out tens of thousands of un-or-under-employed graduates every year,
employers are discovering that it is becoming possible to hire employees to perform
full-time legal work without actually paying them for it. How widespread this practice is
remains unknown, but the large number of graduates who report they are doing
“internships” and “clerkships” for employers suggests that this innovation in legal
employer-employee relations may not be rare.
(4) Possibly unsustainable forms of self-employment. Nearly one third of 2010 law
graduates who listed themselves as employed full-time in a position requiring a law
degree were either in solo practices or with firms of 2-10 employees.73 Some of the
latter positions were genuine, if generally low-paying, associate positions with stable law
firms. Others consisted of nominally paid “clerkships,” or so-called eat what you kill
arrangements, in which a firm offers office space to a graduate in return for a
percentage of whatever business the graduate manages to drum up. Yet others
consisted of a couple of new grads opening a law office and trying to make a go of it, in
a hyper-saturated market in which they have almost no idea what they are doing,
because neither the most basic mechanics of practicing law nor any of the aspects of
running one’s own small business were covered during the course of their legal
education. 74
If we eliminate temporary positions from the core employment rate, made up of those holding fulltime
jobs requiring bar passage, then the percentage of graduates of the class of 2010 who can be
said to have held real legal jobs nine months after graduation probably falls below 40%, even if we
72 See for example
Remarkably, one such position required at least three and preferably five years of practice
experience. See
73 See
74 What percentage of very small firm jobs listed by recent graduates fall into each of these
categories remains unknown. That some graduates fall into each is clear from my extensive
correspondence with recent graduates regarding their employment situations.
count federal and state supreme court judicial clerkships as real legal jobs.75 We can only speculate
regarding how many full-time putatively long-term positions feature either nominal or non-existent
salaries, or otherwise consist of forms of unsustainable self-employment, but it seems doubtful that,
when all is said and done, even one third of the graduates of ABA-accredited law schools in 2010
had what we are defining – and more to the point what they would have considered from an ex
ante perspective – real legal jobs.76
We have not yet touched on what must be a crucial consideration in any analysis of this type,
which is the matter of what the jobs that law graduates get that pay them actual salaries actually pay.
Here, the NALP data are incomplete, but in a way that still allows certain conclusions to be drawn.
NALP reported salary data for only 41.5% of the class of 2010.77 The significance of this can be
gleaned by looking at the breakdown of various categories of jobs in regard to reporting rates. For
example, salaries were reported for 92.8% of graduates who reported employment with firms of
more than 500 attorneys.78 Meanwhile salaries were reported for just 36.9% of graduates who
reported employment with firms of two to ten attorneys. And of course no salaries were reported
for the 12.4% of the class that was not employed at all. In short, reporting rates tended to be very
high for graduates with high-paying work, and low for graduates with low-paying jobs.79
Given this pattern, certain fairly reliable conclusions can be drawn about what salaries graduates of
the class of 2010 were receiving nine months into their nascent legal careers. NALP reported a
median salary of $63,000 for graduates of the class. This means that 20.75% of the class was
reported to be making a salary of $63,000 or more. The true figure is probably higher, but how
much higher?80 Because salary reporting rates are so much higher among graduates with wellpaying
jobs, it seems improbable that more than one quarter of the class of 2010 was making
75 Only 58% of 2010 ABA law school graduates had a full-time position requiring a law degree
nine months after graduation. But 26% of all jobs taken by these graduates (including non-legal
jobs) were temporary positions. See footnote 74 supra.
76 To put it another way, a real legal job can be defined as a job that a typical prospective law
student would have considered a minimally satisfactory employment outcome as a
consequence of the decision to enroll in law school.
77 See footnote 74 supra.
78 Id.
79 When reporting salaries schools do not rely solely on self-reporting by graduates. NALP
encourages schools to use a variety of sources of information, such as publically-known starting
salaries at law firms and other employers, to determine graduates’ salaries when these are not
reported by the graduates themselves. One consequence of this is that a graduate with a highpaying
job is far more likely to have his or her salary recorded even without the graduate’s
80 “Probably,” because it isn’t completely clear that the number of unreported salaries of $63,000
or more outnumbers the number of misreported salaries that were reported as being this high
but in fact were not. When I audited the employment and salary data for the University of
Colorado’s class of 2010, I found several inaccuracies in regard to employment status, that all
tended to overstate the graduate’s employment situation. That is, I found graduates who were
working part-time described as working full-time, and graduates in short-term positions described
as being in long-term positions. I was unable to check the accuracy of reported salary data.
$63,000 or more nine months after graduation. This conclusion can also be extrapolated from the
so-called bimodal salary distribution in salaries paid to recent law graduates. As Professor William
Henderson’s analysis of the data has made clear, there are actually very few entry-level legal jobs
that pay more, but not much more, than the median salary.81 A very large number of entry-level
legal jobs pay between $35,000 and $60,000 per year, while a smaller number pay the six-figure
salaries that big firms offer to starting associates. We know the reporting rates for six-figure salaries
are very high, and that there are comparatively few jobs that pay in the high five figures. In short, it
seems unlikely that many graduates are making more than the reported median, yet having their
salaries go unreported.82
Roughly speaking, we can estimate that at present perhaps 15% of law graduates are securing highpaying
entry-level jobs, and another 25% are getting legal jobs that pay in the mid five figures, while
the majority of graduates are unable to secure full-time long-term legal employment within a year
of graduation. The consequences for recent graduates of this overall employment and salary
situation, given the skyrocketing cost of obtaining a law degree, are dire.
B. Debts That No Honest Man Can Pay
Nearly nine out of ten current law students borrow money to attend law school.83 Two years ago
the federal government revamped federal support for educational lending, by removing
government guarantees for private educational loans, and replacing such loans with a system of
expanded direct lending from the federal government. Federal loans to attend law school
currently carry interest rates of 6.8% for the first $20,500 borrowed per year, and 7.9% for any
amount beyond that.84 Unlike almost any other form of debt, educational loans are not
dischargeable in bankruptcy. What this means, in practice, is that American taxpayers are now the
direct guarantors of the approximately $4.375 billion per year of high interest federal debt that law
students borrow to attend law school.85
How much is this per graduate? The median debt at the 191 law schools who reported data for
the class of 2011 (four schools did not report) was $105,028, up 5.84% from 2010's figure of
$99,236.86 This happens to be just about exactly the percentage by which tuition went up for the
81 See
82 This is all the more true given the very strong practical incentives law schools have to discover
and report all the high-salaried jobs their graduates have acquired. Of course the incentives run
very much the other way in regard to discovering and reporting low salaries.
83 Per a Center For American Progress Report, the percentage of 2008 law school graduates who
took out educational loans to pay law school expenses was 88.6%. See
84 Details for the current programs can be found here:
85 Approximately 125,000 law students are currently borrowing an average of about $35,000 per
year to attend ABA-accredited law schools.
86 Debt figures can be found here:
national class of 2011 relative to the class of 2010. This indicates the extent to which law school
tuition is now so high that tuition increases will be close to 100% debt-financed by the nearly 90%
of graduates who take on law school debt.87
Keep in mind that these figures omit other educational debt. As far as I have been able to discover
law schools do not collect any data on how much educational debt the students they admit have
already incurred, but given that average undergraduate debt among college graduates with debt was
estimated at $24,000 four years ago, that undergraduate tuition continues to outstrip inflation by a
healthy margin, and that this figure omits the much higher debt loads of graduates of (increasingly
common) for-profit colleges it is likely that around 150 law schools featured median educational
debt for 2011 graduates of more than $100,000.88 This group includes more than three-quarters of
ABA-accredited schools. Furthermore, given ongoing law school tuition increases, current law
students are certain to incur significantly more debt than the graduating class of 2011 (Even if
tuition were frozen at all law schools in 2012 and 2013, current 1Ls would still pay on average
about $22,000 more in total tuition than did the class of 2011).89 Indeed, we can estimate
conservatively that the average current first-year law student who graduates with educational debt
will have approximately $150,000 of such debt – almost all of it at interest rates between 6.8% and
Servicing this sort of debt requires a fairly high income. A ten-year repayment plan will require
payments of $1774 per month, i.e., more than $21,000 per year. This will almost surely be an
impossible debt burden for the 75% to 80% of current law graduates who will be earning below the
(essentially fictitious) “median” NALP-reported salary of $63,000 pre-tax dollars, except for those
who are getting significant financial help from a spouse or other family members.90 Those who are
earning near the high end of this range may be able to pay off their educational debt in a legally
timely manner by refinancing their loans to 25-year terms, which is becoming a common practice
among law graduates. Even so, they will still be dealing with a monthly payment of $1100 – and
total payments, with interest, of $330,000, which many of them will not have completed when their
own children are in college.91 And of course even a 25-year repayment plan will be of no use to the
87 Tuition rates between 2005 and 2011 for all ABA-accredited schools have been compiled by
Matt Leichter, author of The Law School Tuition Bubble blog. See
88 See footnote ___ supra and accompanying text.
89 This number can be derived by comparing tuition levels in 2011-12 to those over the previous
three years and assuming that tuition remains the same for the class of 2014 for the duration of its
members’ law school attendance.
90 Recall that the median salary as reported by NALP is drawn from a group that includes only
41.5% of all law graduates, meaning that barely one in five law graduates were reported to
have salaries at or above the median.
91 Georgetown University Law Center’s web site provides a useful tool for calculating the
consequences of various debt levels:
large number of recent graduates making considerably less than mid-five figure salaries, or who are
completely unemployed, or for those graduates who are making the “median” (in reality the 75th to
80th percentile) salary, but who have $200,000, $250,000 or even $300,000 in educational debt, as
thousands do now, and even more will in the near future.
Even for the “winners” in the law school investment game-- the approximately 15% of law students
who acquire jobs upon graduation that pay six-figure starting salaries--that game remains fraught
with financial peril. The large majority of associates who join big law firms leave those firms rather
than becoming partners.92 If they acquire reasonably high-paying positions upon departure, or if
they live very frugally during their years with the firm and manage to pay down a large portion of
their debt, then their gamble will have paid off, at least in pecuniary terms.93
Yet changes in the market for such high-paying big firm positions appear to be making this an
increasingly risky wager – not merely in terms of acquiring such a job in the first place, but also in
terms of holding onto it long enough, and/or having a good enough exit option, to make the initial
acquisition ultimately worthwhile.94 Indeed, a pair of recent papers by law professors – one of
whom is currently a law school dean -- each come to the conclusion that a law degree is under
present circumstances likely to be a significantly negative net investment for a large majority of
those who acquire one.95
Those law school graduates – under present circumstances quite possibly an actual majority – who
cannot pay their debts in a timely manner even if those debts are refinanced to traditional
V2.htm. This calculator illustrates how fully debt-financing a legal education will result in debt
loads, six months after graduation, nearly 20% higher than the principal debt incurred over the
course of law school. For example a student who borrows $200,000 over the course of law school
will have, at present interest rates, around $234,000 in debt in the fall following graduation.
92 According to NALP, 77% of associates leave the firm they joined after graduation within five
years. See Law Practice: Up, Out or Over, American Bar Association Law Practice Archive, # 160
93 The non-pecuniary, i.e., psychic, benefits and costs of legal education comprise a subject
beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that this is a complex topic, as it seems clear
that such benefits and costs are both considerable. On the one hand a legal career has
significant status value for many people beyond its monetary rewards; on the other, both the
monetary rewards and status value must be weighed against the body of evidence suggesting
that lawyers are unusually unhappy, depressed, and prone to substance abuse and suicide
when compared to other professionals. On the latter set of issues see Patrick Schiltz, “On Being a
Happy, Healthy and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” 52
Vanderbilt L. Rev. 871 (1999).
94 Some observers believe that the recent downturn in big firm hiring is a sign of a structural
rather than a cyclical change in the employment market for lawyers, and that both law firms
and law schools need to accommodate themselves to a world in which technology and
outsourcing will continue to transfer work that was formerly done by junior associates at large
American law firms to other, more economical, entities.
95 See Herwig Schlunk “Mamas 2011: Is a Law Degree a Good Investment Today?” Vanderbilt
Law and Economics Research Paper No. 11-42, and Jim Chen, “A Degree of Practical Wisdom:
The Ratio of Debt to Income as a Basic Measurement of Law School Graduates’ Economic
Viability,” [forthcoming 38 William Mitchell L. Rev. ___(2012).
mortgage-length terms are faced with few options. Except under extraordinary circumstances, their
debts cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, which means either they will either eventually default on
them or, if they are eligible, enter the federal government’s Income-Based Repayment program
(IBR). IBR allows debtors to make reduced payments equal to 15% of whatever portion of their
adjusted gross income is 150% above the federal poverty line.96 Whatever interest due that is not
paid by the debtor accrues, but is not capitalized, onto the principal debt. After 25 years – 20 years
for loans originating after 2012 – any remaining principal is forgiven, although under present IRS
rules the forgiven debt is treated as income to the debtor.97 For certain government loans the
Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program allows the debtor’s debt to be discharged after 120 ontime
reduced rate payments if the debtor is working for a government or non-profit employer.98
While preferable to default, the disadvantages of IBR and PSLF are significant. The debtor’s debt
grows for as long as the debtor remains eligible, meaning the debtor has a large unsecured debt on
his or her credit report, which will make it difficult to secure consumer credit. If the debtor
secures a high enough paying job to no longer be eligible for IBR, the debtor must start making
payments on the whole amount. Most problematic of all, the IBR program creates no contractual
rights for those who take advantage of it: as a legal matter the program could be eliminated at any
time, leaving those dependent on it with enormous amounts of non-dischargeable debt.
In sum, the present cost of legal education creates debt loads for law students that bear no
reasonable relation to the employment prospects many of those students will have upon
graduation. And this is no longer merely a problem at lower-ranked law schools. The
combination of increasing educational costs and flat or actually decreasing numbers of high paying
legal jobs, in an economy where the cost of legal services is coming under more and more pressure
from the forces of economic rationalization has created a situation in which many graduates of
even very highly ranked schools find themselves struggling to secure the kinds of jobs they would
have considered minimally acceptable in return for paying the $200,000 or more in direct costs, as
well as the significant opportunity costs, they paid in order to obtain law degrees from prestigious
C. Current Employment Outcomes For Graduates of Elite Law Schools
How many current students at highly-ranked law schools are likely to secure what they would have
considered a good, or at least acceptable, first legal job upon graduation before they
enrolled?99One way to answer this question is to determine outcomes that prospective elite law
school students would likely consider unacceptable from an ex ante perspective. Although of
96 See
97 This further debt can be discharged in bankruptcy after three more years.
98 See footnote 97 supra.
99 For many graduates, the first job they acquire after graduation plays a particularly significant
role in their overall career path, since certain types of prestigious legal work (for example
employment with a national law firm or a federal judicial clerkship) tend to have a strong effect
on a graduate’s subsequent career prospects.
course these will vary by individual, it is possible to make general estimates about the sorts of postgraduate
outcomes that would lead to buyer’s remorse on the part of people who are considering
investing several hundred thousand dollars in direct and opportunity costs in order to attend a top
law school.
For the purpose of analysis, let us assume the following post-graduate outcomes, as recorded by
the annual NALP survey, would be considered unacceptable by most prospective elite law school
(1) Unemployment (or employment status not known).
(2) A law school-funded position.
(3) Further graduate study.
(4) “Academia.”
(5) A position with a small law firm.
(6) A state or local clerkship
(7) A position in “business and industry.”
That (1) and (2) are generally bad outcomes requires no explanation. Further graduate study –
which most often means enrollment in an LLM program – is for law school graduates usually a
consequence of being unable to obtain suitable employment. On NALP forms “academia” tends
to mean a low-paying and generally temporary position within an academic institution rather than a
tenure-track job or a so-called visiting assistant professorship, which can serve as a prelude to the
former. Positions with small law firms generally feature the most of the major disadvantages of
entry-level associate big firm work without the compensation of a large paycheck. State and local
clerkships are rarely considered desirable positions by elite law school graduates, and on NALP
surveys “business and industry” usually signifies low-paying non-legal employment.
Of course all these generalizations are subject to individual exceptions. For example occasionally a
graduate is unemployed by choice. A few small law firm jobs are with high-paying boutiques. A
state supreme court clerkship can be a desirable position. A position in “business and industry”
might feature a six-figure salary with an international consulting firm. And so on. On the other
hand, the proposed method of analysis assumes that all large-firm jobs, all federal clerkships, all
government jobs, and all public interest positions are without exception desirable outcomes for
graduates, which will also not be true in some individual cases. The point of the method is not to
make individual judgments, but to provide a basic estimate in the aggregate regarding the present
likelihood of desirable and undesirable outcomes for graduates of these schools.
Based on the above definitions, here are estimates of what percentage of the graduating classes of
2011 at various highly-ranked law schools had, as of February 15, 2012, undesirable employment
Columbia: 22.8%
Penn: 24.5%
Berkeley: 27.4%
Northwestern: 30.7%
Duke: 33.3%
Chicago: 34.0%
Michigan: 34.3%
Virginia: 36.1%
Cornell: 37.3%
Georgetown: 38.2%
Vanderbilt: 46%
Texas: 53.1%
USC: 54.1%
If these statistics reflect the situation at the nation’s highest-ranked laws schools, then
at how many law schools are a large majority, or even a simple majority, of graduates, currently
obtaining career prospects that make the cost of attendance, in terms of both direct expenses and
forgone opportunity, worthwhile for them relative to their other options? Any systematic
investigation of this question will reach conclusions which at the very least suggest strongly that the
current model of legal education in the United States is on an unsustainable path, and that
maintaining the status quo is not a long-term option for legal academia.
100 For the purposes of this analysis small law firms are defined as firms of less than 51 attorneys.
As of this writing 2011 employment statistics were not available for Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and
New York University. All statistics are taken from the respective law schools’ web sites. Example:
Columbia lists 456 graduates in its 2011 class. 11 were unemployed or in graduate school. 38
were in law school-funded jobs. Three were listed as being in academia, 22 were with small law
firms, 24 were in business or industry, and six had state or local clerkships.
Part IV
Legal education in America now features costs that are not justified by the return on investment
that law graduates can reasonably expect from their degrees. This appears to be the case for a
significant majority of graduates at most law schools, and large minorities of graduates even at elite
institutions.101 In other words, the net present value of most law degrees being earned today is
What can be done to alter an equation that cannot be sustained in the long run? This section
examines the prospects for a significant increase in the value of law degrees. It then considers
some short-term and longer-term reforms for dealing with the crisis of the American law school.
A. Will Law Degrees Become More Valuable?
One possibility is that the return on investment graduates can expect from law degrees will improve
significantly. This seems unlikely for a number of reasons. First, contrary to claims that what
appears to be the unsustainable cost structure of legal education is only a temporary anomaly,
produced by the downturn in large firm entry-level hiring in the wake of the recession of 2007-
2008, there is a great deal of evidence that long-term structural changes in the market for the
providers of legal services have been eroding the expected return on law degrees for more than two
decades now. As a percentage of gross domestic product the legal services sector in America has
contracted by nearly one third since the late 1970s.102 These long-term changes were reflected in
hiring statistics for new law graduates well before the recent recession.
Here are the percentages of graduates of ABA-accredited law schools who, according to the annual
NALP survey, were employed in full-time positions requiring a law degree nine months after
graduation in each year since 2001 (prior to 2001 NALP used a different method which makes the
figures not directly comparable):
2001: 68.3 percent
2002: 67.0 percent
101 A common rule of thumb used by analysts of educational debt is that a degree that requires
the graduate to take on no more debt than the annual salary of the graduate’s first
postgraduate job is a good investment, while a degree that requires 50% more debt is
problematic, and one which requires twice as much debt as the graduate’s initial salary is likely
to be a poor investment. With average educational debt among law graduates now well into
six figures, and no more than one in seven law graduates obtaining six-figure starting salary jobs,
very few law schools are currently producing even marginally acceptable outcomes for their
102 See footnote __ supra and accompanying text.
2003: 65.5 percent
2004: 65.1 percent
2005: 66.7 percent
2006: 68.3 percent
2007: 70.7 percent
2008: 67.2 percent
2009: 62.5 percent
2010: 59.9 percent103
Note that these percentages include temporary positions, including temporary positions created by
law schools for their otherwise unemployed graduates.104 They also exclude from the denominator
the roughly two percent of each national class whose status was unknown. In other words, even
using an extremely generous definition of what constitutes obtaining a legal job, fully one-third of
ABA law school graduates were not obtaining such jobs prior to the recent recession.
Almost every long-term trend in the employment market for graduates of American law schools
points toward the elimination of jobs, especially entry-level jobs for lawyers. Technology and
outsourcing are the two most obvious structural factors that help explain a 33% functional
unemployment rate among graduates of ABA law schools even prior to the recent downturn.105 In
addition, it is important to keep in mind that the attention that both the legal media and elite law
schools give to the question of the extent to which large law firms will return to something like the
hiring patterns of five years ago is out of all proportion to the relevance that particular question has
to the graduates of the 90% of law schools who historically speaking have sent less than 20% of
their graduates to such firms (indeed 80% of law schools have a history of sending less than 10% of
their graduates to large firms).


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