In fact seven dental schools -- about 12% of the national total -- closed between 1986 and 2001, including schools at Georgetown, Northwestern, and Emory. A proportionate contraction in ABA law schools would require about 25 schools to close down. That analogy might sound a bit crisisish to people at law schools that don't have $1.7 billion endowments and 23 alumni currently serving on the Supreme Court.
As law students face a shrinking job market and mounting student loan debt, Cohen predicted that law schools may mimic a transformation which dental schools passed through about 15 years ago: a decrease in the number of institutions accompanied by “increased scholarly output of faculty that was closer to practice.”
At any rate, as Brian Tamanaha pointed out recently, "law schools" don't appear to be in a crisis at the present moment -- they're doing just fine. "The real crisis," Tamanaha reminds us (and to be fair it appears we require constant reminders), "is suffered by our recent graduates, who find themselves burdened by mountainous debt, with limited employment opportunities."
Just how bad is the law graduate employment and debt crisis getting? One reason it's difficult for legal academics to grasp the true nature of that crisis, besides the splendid isolation inherent to life within particularly well-appointed ivory towers, is that there's a lag effect between the economic consequences of the decisions law schools take, the effect of those decisions on graduates, and the percolation of that effect into the cultural conversation.
In other words, graduates of the law school class of 2010, for example, are just now -- after the clerkships and the internships and the churn and burn associate positions in five-person law firms, and the other essentially temporary post-graduation "legal jobs" are over or ending -- beginning to come to terms with their actual situation. And the eventual nature of that situation was determined in large part by decisions taken by law school and university administrators (and indirectly by faculty) about six to ten years ago, when the institutional budgets and tuition rates for the Class of 2010 were determined.
Because of this lag effect it makes sense to try to look at least a little way into the future when trying to answer questions regarding the extent to which there's a law school crisis. For instance, consider the situation that will be faced by the current 1L class when it graduates, and in the years immediately afterwards. How much educational debt will the current 1L class incur? It's not difficult to estimate this: average law school debt was about $100,000 for the class of 2011, and has been rising by around 6% per year. In addition, average undergraduate debt in the United States at graduation is currently about $24,000. While there are no figures on the undergraduate debt of law students in particular, we can take these numbers and, with some fairly conservative extrapolation, conclude that the 85% to 90% of current 1Ls who are incurring law school debt will graduate with about $150,000, on average, of total educational debt. Furthermore the average interest rate on that debt is going to be in the neighborhood of 7%.
What sort of income does someone have to make to service that level of debt at that interest rate in anything like a halfway comfortable fashion? A common estimate of such things suggests that anything higher than a 1 to 1.5 income to educational debt ratio becomes quite problematic. How many current 1Ls are going to be earning $100,000 or more upon graduation from law school? These things are not too difficult to estimate in a rough and ready fashion. The most recent NALP figures suggest that about 6,000 graduates of the Class of 2010, i.e., about 13.5% of all ABA law school graduates that year, were earning salaries of $100,000 or more nine months after graduation (of course a much lower percentage will keep those jobs long enough to pay down their educational debt adequately).
Now of course February 2011 is not February 2015, and it's possible that large law firm hiring, which accounts for essentially 100% of such salaries, will have returned to the historic highs it reached a half dozen years ago. Even if it were to do so, however, (and there are significant structural factors at work suggesting it won't) that would still leave about 80% of the Class of 2014 unable to secure employment that pays at a level that justifies what will be that class's average educational debt load. It's far more likely, in my view, that this percentage will be 90%. But ultimately what practical difference does it make? Either figure represents a fundamentally unsustainable business model for legal education, although again it takes years for information of this sort to trickle down into the cultural discourse.
The law school crisis, in 25 words or less: Half of all current law students aren't going to have real legal careers at all, and more than half of the remainder aren't going to make enough money as lawyers to justify the combination of educational debt and opportunity costs they incurred while becoming lawyers. (OK that's more than 25 words but still not bad for an academic).
Of course these extraordinarily grim figures will affect different law schools in very different ways: at the top schools "only" 20% to 30% of their graduates, perhaps, will end up in dire straits, while at the typical law school the figure will be more like 80%-90%. But it's already gotten bad enough that even the Harvards of the world are starting to notice. And that, in its own perverse way, is real progress.