November 6, 2010
"Would Law School Warning Labels Help?"
The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new piece from The National Law Journal, which gets started this way:
People smoke. People speed. They don't exercise or get enough sleep. They go to law school. By now, everyone is aware of the consequences of these actions. In fact, they have known them for some time. The question is: who is responsible?
Placing blame is, after all, a central component of the law. In the case of what ails legal education, however, it is not very easy to assign.
I had the privilege of speaking with a variety of industry thought leaders on this topic for a research study on The Evolution of the Legal Profession (pdf) (sponsored by DiscoverReady). They identified two reasons that individuals assume the debt to go to law school without a full awareness of the potential outcomes.
First, most prospective law students sincerely believe they will graduate in the top 10 percent of the class. "You sign the loan papers with the idea that it will all pay off and it is the idealized big firm life that allows people to take debt," notes Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William Henderson. He recommends that the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar direct schools to walk students through the application process more carefully to conduct an intelligent analysis of their career prospects.
Second, law school applicants are generally naive consumers of debt. "As soon as tuition rose to a level where people had to borrow significant sums in order to go to law school, you had students with no experience taking out loans, repaying them or understanding what it means to have debt," says University of Miami School of Law Dean, Patricia White. "It was a little bit like the foreclosure crisis and the mortgage debacle," she adds.
These seem like plausible explanations given the decreasing level of zeal amongst budding barristers, evidenced by the recent examples of individuals trying to sell or return their law degrees, and the increasing number of applicants.
To address this disparity, last fall, in her first year as dean, White sent accepted applicants who had already paid their full non-refundable deposit a unique letter that generated national attention. In it, she asked, them to reconsider their choice of attending law school. The dean offered them the option to defer their admission for one year to further reflect on their chosen path. Of the 32 students who accepted her offer, only eight enrolled this year.