Returns on Investment in Law School Education

The New York Times ran a much emailed piece talking about the declining value of a top-tier law degree, and now law professor Sarah Waldeck has followed up at Concurring Opinions with a blog post urging potential law students to be very tough-minded in deciding whether to go to law school:

Forty-five thousand dollars per year (plus other costs) seems like a lot to pay for such uncertain prospects.  But the number of people sitting for the LSAT this year suggests that quite a few will be willing to pay it; soon we’ll have a clearer picture of how many LSAT scores will materialize into actual applications.

Of course, this year law school applications will be partly driven by the lack of opportunity costs. Graduating college students face generally dismal employment prospects regardless of what field they want to enter.   But I suspect that optimism bias plays just as large a role in student decision-making.   No matter what the economy, some lawyers will be wildly successful.  Many prospective students are inclined to think that they will be part of this group, no matter how daunting the odds against it.  On the more rational side of the analysis, it’s also true that law school historically has proven itself a relatively good place to weather out bad economic times.

What is different this time around, however, is that no one is yet sure whether the changes in legal markets and in law firms are permanent, or whether things will eventually return to what we had come to think of as normal.  If you haven’t always wanted to practice law, or if you’re considering a law school that is not one of the best in the nation, or if the law school isn’t offering to pay for you to attend, my advice is to wait to see how this plays out.

Law schools know that many prospective students will ignore this kind of advice, at least for now. The decision to admit students—and to encourage them to attend—has a moral component, especially when law schools know that some students (many? most?) will face diminished prospects upon graduation.  Law schools, the ABA and the AALS have a continuing dialogue about what constitutes a quality legal education.  Now they should be talking about concrete steps that are responsive to the changing legal market.  In the short term, and at a minimum, law schools would seem to have the obligation to hold tuition steady.  In the long term, and if these market changes are permanent, universities need to ask hard questions about whether the number of law school seats should be determined by how many people want to go to law school or how many lawyers the market can absorb.  This, in turn, would raise a series of questions about class size as well as the propriety of establishing new law schools.