The current debate over the future of legal education is critical. Even more important is the need to base that debate on a common understanding of indisputable facts. Perhaps UC-Irvine Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow just made an honest mistake in misreading employment statistics upon which they rely in their April 14, 2014 New York Times op-ed, “Don’t Skimp on Legal Training.” If so, it was a bad one. (The Times designated my comment that includes some of the data cited in this post as a “NYT pick.”)

The offending paragraph comes early in the effort to dismiss those who use the word “crisis” — their op-ed puts it in quotation marks — to describe the challenges facing the profession. Since that word appears prominently in the subtitle of my latest book, I’ll take the bait.

Wrong From The Start

The authors support their “no crisis” argument with this:

“[A]s recently as 2007, close to 92 percent of law-school graduates reported being employed in a paid-full-time position nine months after law school. True, the employment figures had dropped by 2012, the most recent year for which data is [sic] available, but only to 84.7 percent.”

But the data on which they rely include part-time, short-term, and law school funded jobs — and only those graduates “for whom employment status was known.”

“Facts Are Stubborn Things”

Not until 2010 did the ABA require law schools to identify the types of jobs that their graduates actually obtained. The results have been startling, as data from the class of 2013 demonstrate:

— Nine months after graduation, only 57% of graduates had long-term full-time (LT-FT) jobs requiring bar passage. Another 5% held part-time or short-term positions.

— LT-FT “JD Advantage” jobs went to another 10.1%. This category includes positions — such as accountant, risk manager, human resources employee, and more — for which many graduates are now asking themselves whether law school was worth it.

— Another 4% got law school funded jobs.

— Unemployed law graduates seeking jobs increased to 11.2%.

— Average law school debt for current graduates exceeds $100,000. The rate of tuition increase in law schools between 1998 and 2008 exceeded the rate for colleges and medical schools. One reason is that U.S. News ranking criteria reward expenditures without regard to whether they add value to a student’s education.

— For 33 out of 202 ABA-accredited law schools, the LT-FT JD-required employment rate was under 40%; for 13 schools, it was under 33%.

Federally-backed student loans that survive bankruptcy fuel a dysfunctional system that has removed law schools from accountability for graduates’ employment outcomes. The current regime blocks the very “market mechanisms to weed out the weakest competitors” that the authors cite as providing the ultimate cure. As law school applications have plummeted, most schools have responded with soaring acceptance rates.

If all of that doesn’t add up to a crisis, what will it take?

The Importance of Credibility

The problem with the authors’ unfortunate attempt to minimize the situation is its power to undermine their other points that are, in fact, worth considering.

For example, they note that job prospects “obviously depend on where a person went to school and how he or she performed.” True, but many law professors now touting the happy days ahead for anyone currently contemplating law school ignore that reality.

“The cost of higher education, and the amount of debt that students graduate with, should be of concern to all.” True, but what’s their proposed solution?

“Law schools specifically should do more to provide need-based financial aid to students — rather than what most law schools have been doing in recent years, which is to shift toward financial aid based primarily on merit in order to influence their rankings. This has amounted to ‘buying’ students who have higher grades and test scores.” True, but how many schools are changing their ways? Between 2005 and 2010, law schools increased need-based financial aid from $120 million to $143 million while non-need based aid skyrocketed from $290 million to $520 million.

Like almost every law school dean in America, Dean Chemerinsky has a choice. He can acknowledge the crisis for what it is and be part of the solution, or he can live in denial and remain part of the problem. Earlier this year, National Jurist named Chemerinsky its “Most Influential Person in Legal Education.” Now is the time for him to rise to the challenge of that role.



  1. A devastating critique.
    It is sad to see yet another example of how academics view their own world as purer than the private sector, yet engage in a plethora of sleazy practices. The corruption of NCAA football/basketball is well known, but encouraging students to pursue studies which will leave them with debt, not a job; covering up sexual assaults; turning a blind eye towards dangerous hazing, binge drinking and cheating; coercing students to drop out of pre-med lest they reduce the percentage of students admitted to med schools; lavish spending by college presidents; and admitting large numbers of affluent foreign students they know fabricated their proficiency in English are also pervasive.

  2. “The cost of higher education, and the amount of debt that students graduate with, should be of concern to all.” True, but what’s their proposed solution?

    I can tell you the solution DEFINITELY isn’t paying a law school dean of a superfluous and unnecessary law school and his wife $597,000 per year. But I’m sure they really care about the poor and the students they turn into poor people for the rest of their lives. What heroes!

    The law school industry is going down in flames. It is completely untethered from the reality of market forces. When you advertise $135,000 starting salaries but 70% of your grads make $30-50,000, there’s going to be hell to pay. People are having their lives destroyed. IBR is a band aid over a gaping, life-threatening wound and it results in a financially destructive tax bomb after 25 years. To the mooncalves who think Congress will do anything about the tax bomb: why aren’t they lifting a finger to closely regulate, prosecute, and punish the law school industry that has wasted such vast sums of taxpayer funds and taxpayer-backed funds?

    • Given that Congress has done nothing useful regarding the much larger and even worse waste of taxpayer money by for profit colleges and student loan mills, I suspect law schools can breathe easy.

  3. Chemerinsky’s desperate NYT article is just a follow-up to Lawrence Mitchell’s from 18 months ago. Expect another bogus dispatch in NYT about 18 months from now (or maybe even sooner, since the situation with law school enrollments and finances is getting more dire).

    I wonder if Chemerinsky is embarrassed to be place in the position of high-profile law dean shill. If UCI fails then of course it will besmirch Chemerinsky’s reputation, legacy, whatever. So, I guess the stakes are high for him.

  4. I was in the second class at UCI Law. My experience there was overwhelmingly positive in the first year, and much less so in my 4th and 5th semesters. The refrain we always heard from Chemerinsky — for whom I have tremendous respect as a person and a professor, if not necessarily as a dean — and the administration is that the school had to be “different enough to be innovative; traditional enough to be credible.”

    The problem is that this equation is *worse* than zero-sum. You can’t *both* revolutionize legal education *and* hit all the same metrics of success as the models you’re trying to leave behind. Chemerinsky’s goal (though I don’t know if this comes from him personally or from higher up the food chain) has been to debut in the top 20 of the US News rankings, which locks the school into hitting the same targets as everyone else. A ballsier (and ultimately more helpful, I think) move would’ve been to say, “We’re not going to rank too highly at first, because the ranking system is broken. Instead, we’re going to establish a track record of producing exceptional lawyers who are ready to hit the ground running in their chosen fields.”

    Don’t get me wrong — there are a lot of things that UCI Law does exceptionally well. I took summer classes through three other law schools, and the caliber of both students and professors at UCI Law was on the whole substantially higher. The amount of hands-on legal work that’s available to students is significant. Anna Davis, who runs the school’s pro bono office (finding pro bono opportunities and supervisors for law students), is a gem and one of the school’s greatest assets. The smaller class sizes and the plentifully available seminars are great. The professors are accessible.

    But at the end of the day, the school — particularly the administration — just doesn’t walk the talk. I’ve been out of school for 16 months (I graduated a semester early), passed the CA bar exam on my first try, and still haven’t found full-time work. Parts of that are certainly not the school’s fault, but parts of that certainly are.

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