Monday, November 20, 2017

Law schools give most financial aid to students who need it least: Legal education is "rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell"

To borrow a phrase from James Howard Kunstler, American law schools are going through their own private version of "The Long Emergency." Law school applications are down, enrollments are down, and the job market for attorneys continues to be terrible.

Meanwhile, tuition prices at American law schools keep going up, which means most law-school graduates begin their careers with mountains of debt. A 2015 report  by the American Bar Association found that average debt for people attending private law schools was $127,000. But average debt loads at for-profit schools is often higher than that. The average debt load for students who attended the now defunct Charleston School of Law was reportedly $200,000.

With fewer people attending law school and fewer people actually enrolling, law schools have done two things to keep their enrollments up:

First, the second- and third-tier law schools began lowering admission standards, which means more and more of their graduates are failing the bar exams.

According to Law School Transparency, some schools have admission requirements so low that half their students are at "extreme risk" of failing the bar.

Second, law schools have been investing more and more money on financial aid, hoping to lure students through their doors.

Unfortunately, most of this financial aid is going to students who have relatively high LSAT scores and who are most likely to have successful careers. Law schools are increasingly happy to admit students with low LSAT scores, but the schools are not supporting these students with adequate financial aid..

"The net effect," writes retired law professor William C Whitford, "is that lower-LSAT students are subsidizing the legal education of higher-LSAT students, when the latter are more likely to have the postgraduate income that will allow them to repay substantial student indebtedness without undue hardship."

Moreover, the law students with low LSAT scores and overall poorer credentials are likely to be less affluent than law-school applicants with high LSAT scores. As Brian Tamanaha put it in a recent book on law school admission practices, "Law schools have in effect constructed a reverse Robin Hood arrangement, redistributing resources between students making the (likely) poorer future graduates help pick up the tab for the (likely) wealthier future graduates" (as quoted by Whitford).

In short, the middle-tier and bottom-tier law schools have concocted a witches' brew of declining admission standards, inequitable financial aid policies, and high tuition costs, which is forcing the least qualified law students to take out loans that they can never pay back.

Paul Campos summarized this state of affairs in his 2012 book Don't Go To Law School (Unless). Job prospects are so poor for graduates of bottom-rung law schools, Campos warned, that some students would be better off financially if they dropped out after the first year rather than continue with their studies.

All of this is eroding the quality of American lawyers. As bar pass rates go down, the pressure is on state bar associations to lower the pass rate on state bar exams. So far, California has resisted this trend in spite of low pass rates on the California bar exam. At least two states, however--Oregon and Nevada--have caved in to pressure and lowered the pass rate on their state bar exams.

The American Bar Association bears most of the blame for this slow rolling catastrophe. It needs to close the bottom-tier law schools--both public and private. In my view, at least 20 law schools should be shut down.

Apparently the ABA doesn't have the courage to do what needs to be done to preserve the integrity of the legal profession, which, in the words of the immortal Merle Haggard, is "rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell."  As a result, the long-term health of our democracy is being threatened by a chain of forces driven primarily be greed and cowardice.

Merle Haggard:  "Are we rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell?"


References

Natalie Bruzda. Nevada lowers the bar for state legal exam as passage rate skids. Las Vegas Review Journal, August 2017.

Paul Campos. Don't Go to Law School (Unless) (2013).

Cathryn Rubino. Oregon Finds Out Easiest Way To Improve Bar Exam Passage Rate is To Lower Its Cut Score. Above the Law (blog), October 5, 2017.

Brian Tamanaha. Failing Law Schools (2012).

Task Force of Financing Legal Education. American Bar Association Report (2015).

William C.Whitford. Law School-Administered Financial Aid: The Good News and the Bad NewsJournal of Legal Education, 67(1) (Autumn 2017).

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