As the National Law Journal recently revealed, law school tuition and fees will increase 4 percent at private law schools (to approximately $40,585) and 6 percent at public law schools (to approximately $23,590) at a time when inflation is about 1.7 percent and law school applications have declined by 25 percent over the past two years.
This apparent reversal of the law of supply and demand makes even more pressing a question that weighs on the minds of many current and prospective law students and recent graduates: Why is law school tuition so darn high?
One person who's recently been weighing in on that question is Brian Tamanaha, a professor of law at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law and author of Failing Law Schools. More than halfway through his book, he provides a succinct and market-driven answer: "Law schools have raised their tuition to obscene levels because they can."
Or, in economic terms, it is demand for a law degree driving this tuition rise—a demand so great that even a startling rise of 375 percent in private law school tuition from 1985 to 2009 was not enough to dampen the willingness or ability (thanks in part to the easy availability of student loans) of law students to pay it.
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It's worth pointing out that Tamanaha largely rejects a laundry list of reasons that are usually used to explain the rise in law school tuition, including the expansion of clinical programs, the salaries of law professors and the amount expended by law schools to subsidize research. To Tamanaha, these factors are not irrelevant, but the causal relationship largely runs the other way; these are the things law schools have chosen to spend the vast amount of cash they make on.
Of course others, including Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California—Irvine School of Law, feel strongly that these programs provide real value to students by providing, for example, quality faculty and unique educational experiences.
The current concern over law school tuition is manifesting now only because a law degree is an increasingly risky proposition. Tamanaha concludes that only graduates who get a job at a top 250 corporate law firm or who obtain increasingly competitive jobs in government or nonprofits and earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness will be able to manage the "mountain of debt" they took on to go to law school. These options are most likely to be available to graduates of top 10 law schools and those outside the top 10 who earn the best grades.
Some prospective students have only recently begun to realize these facts and to shy away from law school because law schools have created "an alluringly rosy picture," according to Tamanaha, of the employment and salary prospects of law school graduates.
And as (well-founded) debt aversion increasingly prevents students from middle-class and poor families from going to law school, elite legal positions will increasingly be filled by the wealthy and social justice will suffer as law graduates will be compelled by their debt to take private jobs at corporate firms, Tamanaha notes.
Tamanaha enumerates a number of possible solutions, including allowing a differentiated legal system in which "research-oriented law schools [would] coexist alongside law schools that focus on training good lawyers at a reasonable cost;" eliminating the requirement in a majority of states that only ABA-accredited law schools may sit for the state bar exam; applying a version of the federal gainful employment regulations to law schools; and a per-school cap on federal loans combined with allowing the discharge in bankruptcy of private student loans. (Tamanaha recognizes that the latter solution will incentivize law schools to prioritize rich students who don't need to borrow.)
If you do decide to go to law school, don't assume you'll be one of the few who get a job at a corporate law firm. Make a plan to deal with your debt that includes understanding how to earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and utilize Income-Based Repayment and President Obama's Pay As You Earn initiative.
You can get the full scoop on these programs by attending one of our free webinars. If you don't decide to go to law school, the Student Loan Ranger would like to hope the law of supply and demand is not broken and your decision will incrementally decrease the cost of law school for someone else.
Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works' educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.