Showing posts with label The Paper Chase. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Paper Chase. Show all posts

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Demise of Legal Education as a Noble Pursuit

You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.
                Professor Kingsfield, The Paper Chase
I have a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and a doctorate in education policy from Harvard, but my only worthwhile educational experience was my three years at the University of Texas School of Law.

I loved law school. I admired my professors, who taught their classes in business attire and were always well prepared. I respected law school's rigor, the fact that students were graded on a curve and only five percent received As. And I came to love the order, the logic, and the majesty of the law. UT Law School changed my life.

"You come in here with a skull full of mush . . ."
Professor Kingsfield, The Paper Chase
Now, thirty years on, I am saddened by the decline of legal education in the United States. Applications for admission have plunged nationwide, putting pressure on the schools to lower admissions standards.  The market for lawyers is saturated, due in part to the proliferation of third- and fourth-tier law schools, which turn out far more lawyers than our society needs.

And law school has gotten incredibly expensive. In-state tuition at UT Law School is now $36,000 a year! It was only $1,000 a year when I attended.   Students are having to borrow incredible amounts of money to study law, and many don't earn enough after they graduate to pay back their loans.

In fact, some law school graduates are suing their alma maters for fraud and misrepresentation, claiming the law schools falsified their graduates' employment rates to entice people to enroll.

As best I can determine, most of these suits are unsuccessful.  The Sixth Circuit recently issued an opinion that affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought against Thomas M. Cooley Law School by its graduates. The law school was not liable for fraudulent misrepresentation or fraudulent concealment, the Sixth Circuit ruled.

Nevertheless, the facts outlined in the Sixth Circuit decision are disturbing.  Thomas M. Cooley Law School enrolls more law students than any other law school in the United States, the court said. Tuition is $36,750 per year, about the same as the University of Texas School of Law, one of the nation's top-ranked law schools. According to U.S. News &World Report (as cited by the Sixth Circuit opinion), Cooley Law School has the lowest admission standards of any accredited law school in the country. In 2010, it admitted 83 percent of its applicants.

On the other hand, a federal court in New Jersey allowed a lawsuit against Widener University School of Law to go forward.  In that case, under-employed law-school alumni sued Widener under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the Delaware Consumer Fraud Act. 

The alumni claimed that Widener had published misleading post-graduate employment data and salary information. As the court summarized the heart of their claim, "Plaintiffs argue 'they would not have paid over $30,000 a year in tuition had they know that merely 56% of Widener graduates were employed in jobs that require or use a Widener law degree,'" In the court's view, the plaintiffs had sufficiently plead a claim under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act to proceed with their case.

Most of this litigation has been brought against lower-tier law schools that charge high tuition and have trouble placing their graduates in the legal job market.  But I wonder if there is also something wrong with elite law-school education.  Law schools are supposed to teach students to use language carefully--never to deceive the courts or anyone else for that matter. Yet we have seen President Obama--a Harvard law graduate and Editor of the Harvard Law Review--make representations again and again about the Affordable Care Act that simply aren't true.

All Americans should be concerned about the deterioration of legal education in this country.  Since the beginning of the Republic, our nation has drawn its leaders from among lawyers. It has been lawyers who have drafted our legislation, presided over our courts, and made many of the important policy decision that have shaped our national life.

We cannot preserve our nation's democratic ideals, our commitment to fairness and equality, without noble lawyers. And we won't get noble lawyers unless they receive noble legal education.


Harnish v. Widener University School of Law, 931 F. Supp. 2d 641 (D.N.J. 2013).

MacDonald v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, 724 F.3d 654 (6th Cir. 2013).