Reporter's Notebook

A Debate on the Future of Legal Ed Breaks Down to the Real Versus the Ideal


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Photo of Rachel M. Zahorsky by Marc Hauser.

“If you are not going to law school … what is your alternative path?” asks Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the University of California at Irvine School of Law. “And in purely economic terms, is it better than law school? … It’s not just monetary. … There are all sorts of exciting things you can do with a law degree.”

But asked about his own economic terms, the highly paid constitutional scholar says, “I wouldn’t have come at half the price. No one is going to take a 50 percent pay cut, no matter how beautiful Orange County is, and no matter how wonderful it is to be part of a new school.”

The two quotes may seem at odds—the ideal of a career bringing more than financial gain, the reality of getting the paycheck now. But they represent the two thorny sides of the debate around law school and its value.

One can hardly blame Chemerinsky for protecting his own. He had a posh teaching gig at Duke University School of Law and a family with four children to support. Still, his blunt statement represents the stark reality to the idealistic aims of law professor Brian Z. Tamanaha, author of Failing Law Schools, which calls for an innovative, top-quality, public service-minded and affordable (i.e., less than $20K a year) institution as the ideal 21st century law school.

Tamanaha chastises Chemerinsky for failing to sell a vision of affordable excellence. Chemerinsky challenges Tamanaha’s budget skills. “I don’t know a way in which we possibly could have done what we are doing at the kind of amount [he] was discussing,” Chemerinsky told the ABA Journal in August after his National Law Journal op-ed on the issue. “If we had followed Tamanaha’s advice, we would not have faculty remotely of this quality and then never could have attracted students of this caliber,” Chemerinsky wrote in the National Law Journal column.

UCI Law graduated its first class in May, and it will be February before law schools report on law grad hiring. But that first class paid none of the expected $45,000 to $55,000 yearly tuition that this fall’s class will face. And Tamanaha later noted two UCI law professors’ salaries that topped $300,000 in 2011, according to public records. As for the possibility of less expensive legal training—what Tamanaha calls a new paradigm—Chemerinsky sees as low-cost law schools with “a lot of students, small faculty, a lot of adjuncts … not a law school I want to be associated with.”

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Tamanaha “looks at the value of a law degree in too much of monetary concerns,” Chemerinsky told me. But it’s the monetary concerns that concern me, observers of the law school bubble and the young people considering entry into the legal profession.

How idealistic young lawyers will balance the altruistic desire to practice law and the financial cost to get there is not answered in the debate so far. And if the unarguably brilliant leaders of the legal academy can’t envision a solution better than the high-cost elite institution and low-price trade school, what hope is there for a champion of an affordable, high-quality legal education?

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