LAW SCHOOL DISEQUILIBRIUM

It sure seems odd. On January 30, The New York Times reported this year’s dramatic decline in law school applications. A day later, a Wall Street Journal article described the many new schools that are in the works. Economists might call that “market disequilibrium.” More appropriate concepts might be incentivized idiocy and subsidized stupidity. U.S. News rankings incentivize the idiocy; taxpayer dollars subsidize the stupidity.

The WSJ article suggested that some administrators began implementing plans to add law schools “before the current drop [in applicants] became apparent.” However, the two schools in the article, Indiana Tech and the University of North Texas-Dallas College of Law, don’t have that excuse.

Indiana Tech didn’t complete its feasibility study of a proposed new law school until May 2011. The Texas legislature authorized the creation of the UNT-Dallas College of Law in 2009, as the Great Recession deepened. In the 2011-2012 state budget, it earmarked $5 million in funding. The school plans to start classes in 2014.

As for other new schools, what exactly wasn’t apparent when they came to life? Only obvious things that those responsible for creating the schools didn’t want to see.

Follow four numbers

First, from 2003 to 2008, the number of law school applicants dropped steadily — from 100,000 to 83,000. As the Great Recession made law school an attractive place to wait out a dismal economy, total applicants rose to 88,000 before resuming a downward trajectory, perhaps to as few as 54,000 for fall 2013 admission.

Second, in the face of an applicant pool that began shrinking ten years ago, first-year enrollment from 2003 to 2009 remained around 49,000. Refugees from the Great Recession pushed it over 51,000 in 2009 and 2010 before it settled back to 48,700 in 2011.

Third, when these 40,000+ students graduate, there will be full-time legal jobs for about half of them. But that’s not a new development, only a newly disclosed one. To game the U.S. News rankings, law schools have been fudging their employment numbers for years, and they know it.

Finally, at the end of 2003, there were 187 accredited law schools in the United States. Today, there are 201. Attempting to convey the magnitude of the current crisis, University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter told the Times that he expects “as many as 10 schools to close over the next decade.” But over the past ten years alone, the ABA has accredited 14.

What are the lessons?

First, a decline in applications alone doesn’t assure any change in the profession’s errant direction. The real-life experiment from 2003 to 2008 proves that for as long as the number of applicants exceeds the number of available places in law school, academic leaders who think they can make money on law students will continue to build schools.

Second, in an effort to reverse the downward trend in applications, some deans beat the bushes for additional students, even as the job market for their graduates shrinks. Case Western Reserve Law School dean Lawrence Mitchell’s recent op-ed in the NY Times is an example. Another example is an article that Professor Carla Pratt, associate dean of academic affairs at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, wrote last September for The National Law Journal: “Law School Is Still a Good Investment for African-Americans.

Yet another example comes from the UNT-Dallas College of Law. According to the January 31 WSJ article, professor and associate dean for academic affairs Ellen S. Pryor, acknowledges that applications have plummeted, but “the fact that the nationwide numbers are down doesn’t dishearten us from thinking we’ll get really good students and fulfill our mission.”

And what might that mission be? According to the Journal, UNT-Dallas hopes to draw a different pool of applicants than other north Texas law schools. In other words, even undergraduates who never before gave serious thought to law school should prepare themselves for an onslaught of sales pitches.

Limited accountability

Here’s one reason for the profound disconnect: Administrators and deans maintain an unhealthy distance from the economic hardships that their worst decisions inflict on graduates. Federally-guaranteed student loans fuel a system that relieves law schools of financial accountability.

Imagine how the world might change if the government as guarantor had recourse to a student’s law school for that graduate’s subsequent loan default. In the absence of such a market solution, educational debt collection has become a growth industry as law schools avoid the messes they’ve made.

Welcome to The Lawyer Bubble.

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