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Law Prof: Economics of Legal Education Are Broken Because of Exacting Standards, Loan System

Posted Jun 4, 2012 5:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The cost of legal education is out of proportion to the economic benefits of a law degree—and something needs to be done about it, a law professor says.

Writing in the New York Times, Washington University law professor Brian Tamanaha declares that “the economics of legal education are broken.”

“The average debt of law graduates tops $100,000, and most new lawyers do not earn salaries sufficient to make the monthly payments on this debt,” he writes. “More than one-third of law graduates in recent years have failed to obtain lawyer jobs. Thousands of new law graduates will enter a government-sponsored debt relief program, and many will never fully pay off their law school debt.”

Tamanaha blames two factors for the problem. the education loan system and law school accreditation standards.

Some law schools charge as much as $50,000 in annual tuition, and students are able to pay because of student loans that are either guaranteed or supplied by the federal government. Tamanaha, who wrote the book Failing Law Schools, proposes several solutions.

First, law schools with a high proportion of graduates in financial trouble should lose their eligibility to receive money from federal loans. Second, the total amount of money paid to any single law school could be capped, forcing schools to control tuition and enrollment. Third, the government should refuse to guarantee private loans, and grads should be able to discharge the private loans in bankruptcy. This would make lenders more cautious and force law schools to make their own loans, “thereby aligning their interests with the success of their students.”

Tamanaha also criticizes accreditation standards administered by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. They impose a “one size fits all” template on law schools requiring them “to be run like an expensive research university,” he writes. He suggests ending requirements for things such as substantial library collections, for a primarily tenure-track faculty and for paid research leaves.

"This would allow some law schools to focus on training competent lawyers at a reasonable cost while others remained committed to academic research," he writes. "Law students would then be able to choose the type of legal education they desired and could afford."

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