Anders Walker, an Associate Dean at the Saint Louis University School of Law, has posted a scathing--and somewhat personal--indictment of Brian Tamanaha's book, Failing Law Schools. Tamanaha has already responded to the personal element of Walker's attack, and Walker has fired back. (Hat tip to TaxProf on all three posts)
Here, I want to focus on a different element of Walker's posts: The way he uses scholarship as a smokescreen to avoid talking directly about the problem of law school tuition. During the course of his attack, Walker admits that Tamanaha "makes a convincing case that legal education is 'failing society.'" He also agrees that "few can deny that US News has distorted incentives, that tuition has grown too fast, and that the ABA has inhibited market innovation." Walker even concedes that Tamanaha's "data" on the relationship between tuition and faculty salaries "is hard to refute." And he acknowledges that "faculty salaries constitute the primary expense at law schools, and a direct obstacle to lowering tuition."
Huh? If Walker agrees with all of that, what's his beef with Tamanaha? He, like many of the professors who share the online name "anon," wants to deflect discussion of the financial disaster besieging our graduates; instead, Walker wants a referendum on scholarship and interdisciplinary courses. True, one of Tamanaha's suggested reforms is that law schools might opt to differentiate, with some focusing on teaching rather than scholarship. But even that proposal rests on institutional choice and market forces, not on tyranny. And Tamanaha makes many other proposals that would also address the financial crisis law schools have perpetuated among their graduates--and are now starting to confront themselves.
Tamanaha's book is about that crisis, and about the need for legal academics to take responsibility for their actions. We have been raising tuition far, far faster than the rate of inflation--faster even than tuition in most other parts of higher education. Doing that, especially after the job market tanked for lawyers, has put tens of thousands of new lawyers--our former students and new professional colleagues--in a debt crater they are unlikely ever to escape.
It is now four years since the economic collapse of 2008. Every year since then, law schools have said that the job outlook would brighten--and it has gotten worse. Every year, fewer students have gotten jobs, the jobs have gotten more contingent, and the salaries have fallen. The median reported salary among 2011 law graduates was lower than the median reported salary for 2006 law graduates: $60,000 in 2011 compared to $62,000 in 2006. And that's before accounting for inflation: A salary of $62,000 in 2006 is equivalent to one of $69,178 in 2011. With just $60,000 on their pay stubs, today's graduates are far behind those of 2006--if they found jobs or reported their salaries at all.
Every year, in the face of these depressing numbers, we have continued to raise tuition.
At Saint Louis, where Dean Walker teaches, 83.5% of the school's 2011 graduates borrowed to finance their law school education. The average amount borrowed was $120,000. With accrued interest, that average debt (for law school alone) was $131,000 on graduation day. Using a standard, ten-year repayment plan, those graduates will pay more than $1,500 per month. That's more than $18,000 per year--most of it after taxes. Where are graduates working in firms of 2-10 lawyers, public defender offices, and other government offices going to get that kind of money? Not to mention the 6.98% of the class that was still unemployed and seeking work nine months after graduation--three months after their loan repayments started?
St. Louis's statistics aren't unusual; they're better than some and worse than others. The financial morass for recent law school graduates spreads far and deep.
This has nothing to do with scholarship; that's a smokescreen to avoid inconvenient truths about tuition, jobs, and debt. We don't need to save legal history or rescue legal scholarship. I learned from great legal scholars in the 1970s, and my school offered several legal history electives, all at a fraction of today's tuition costs. I'm confident we can cut tuition while preserving plenty of scholarship and interdisciplinary courses; surely we're as talented, frugal, and hard working as professors of earlier generations. We can also have long, interesting discussions with practitioners about the relative proportions of doctrinal, interdisciplinary, and practice-oriented courses we should offer students.
But first we have to confront the economic crisis saddling our graduates: Ignoring that crisis has been irresponsible. We have already graduated years of students with too much debt and too few job prospects. Save our students first; then we can worry about legal history.