An annoying feature of both bad scholarship and lazy auto-pilot journalism is to frame controversies in the following manner: Some say that A is the case, while others say Z. My investigations reveal that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. This is generally pretty useless, because just about any controversy can be framed in such a manner as to make either of two bivalent choices false. ("Some say the Earth is round, while others say it's flat. The truth lies somewhere in the middle." This is literally true; the Earth is not a perfect sphere).
Current controversies over the value of legal education are often subjected to this kind of framing. ("Some people say that law school is a golden ticket, while others claim it's a scam. The truth lies . . ."). Of course one obvious flaw with this sort of framing is that, at the pragmatic level, there's no such thing as "going to law school." There's the choice of going or not going to this or that law school, at this or that cost. A better question would be something like this: at what point in the law school hierarchy does law school become, under current conditions, a bad deal?
We can tighten this question up by employing the pseudo-scientific jargon of economics. Examples:
(1) At how many law schools does the total value added for graduates exceed the total value subtracted for graduates (including cost)?
(2) At how many law schools is law school a net benefit to the median student? (Note this potentially yields a very different answer than #1. A school could be enormously beneficial to 10% of its graduates, a significant mistake for 60% of them, and so forth).
(3) At how many law schools does law school net out as positive for 90% of graduates? 75%? 50%? Etc.
These aren't easy questions to answer. It should be possible to provide something like a rigorous answer in regard to pecuniary costs and benefits, i.e., this law school costs this much and adds (or subtracts) this much to its graduates' future income streams. Things get much trickier when one ventures into the world of psychic costs and benefits. How do you measure the benefit of prestige/social status and the opportunity to do socially meaningful work (I'm not saying law school provides either of these things routinely or even often of course; merely that people go to law school seeking them, and do not always fail to get them) against the many psychic costs of practicing, or failing to practice, law?
A few things are evident. First, the answers to these questions will vary drastically between schools. Second, the answers have been shifting rapidly over the course of the last 15-20 years, and may still be changing fast. Third, using Yale and Cooley, respectively, to illustrate the first point is a waste of everyone's time.
In other words, the question of whether Yale is still a good deal on the whole for its median graduate, or in the Benthamesque aggregate, isn't where the action is. The much more interesting questions are things like: Does it make sense under current and reasonably foreseeable circumstances for the typical 0L to attend, say, Georgetown at sticker, or Illinois with a $15K per year scholarship, or Pittsburgh for cost of living plus opportunity cost? What percentage of grads of third and fourth tier schools are going to come out ahead in such calculations? What percentage of Michigan's 2014 class is going to end up regretting going to law school? And so forth.
Ultimately, more ambitious theorists can try to formulate an answer to the grand question of how many of the people currently at ABA law schools would have been better off not enrolling in the first place.
Note that the historical component of all this is crucial. The 12-word version of the problem is this: Law school used to be a good deal, and now it isn't. This of course isn't true for every law school or every law student at any law school: there are people at Cooley right now who are going to make piles of money and become big shots in at least their local legal worlds.
But for a long time now the costs of going to law school have been going up rapidly everywhere, while the benefits have been declining. (See this WSJ story on life at the very top of the law graduate pyramid. In real terms, per hour compensation for first year associates at top firms is down about 30% from what it was six years ago). Those two curves have moved far enough in their respective directions that it's becoming impossible to put off the question of how many law schools would improve the net future outcome for their prospective graduates by simply ceasing to exist.