UDC-DCSL in Washington Post Magazine
Thursday, November 1, 2012
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
Will law school students have jobs after they graduate?
By Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, Published: October 31
Updated: Thursday, November 1, 8:00AM
Photo at left, by Matt
McClain/for the WASHINGTON
POST) - Shelley Broderick, dean of the law school at the University of the District of Columbia,
says, "We can’t all be Yale.” Tuition at UDC is $10,620 for residents, $21,240
Chemerinsky is a noted constitutional law scholar who has devoted his career to
legal education. He is also the founding dean of the law school at the University of California
Chemerinsky’s new school opened in 2009, amid the financial crisis and a
related — and perhaps permanent — sharp constriction in the job market for new
Though the University of California has four well-established law
schools, Chemerinsky says UC-Irvine’s program fills an unmet need. Irvine, he says, "puts
far more emphasis on preparing students to be lawyers at the highest of the profession than perhaps other law schools.”
To do that, Irvine
needed top-flight facilities and professors. Price, seemingly, is no object.
UC-Irvine, a public university, offers the second-most-expensive legal
education in the country. At more than $77,000 a year including living
expenses, a JD from Irvine
tops the bill from Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Only the University
of California at Berkeley, at almost $78,000, costs more.
untroubled by this, arguing in an interview that Irvine
is no more expensive than Stanford or the University of Southern
California, really. He highlights the success of
his first class of 56 students, which graduated in May. Nearly 80 percent have
already found full-time jobs as lawyers. Excellence costs, he says, and, by
implication, excellence pays.
"If we are not
going to be subsidized by the state” at previous levels, Chemerinsky says, "and
we are going to be a top-quality law school, there is not an alternative in
terms of what it is going to cost. Everybody wishes it would be less expensive.
But there is not a way to do it without compromising quality.”
There are a few
other recent statistics that Chemerinsky and his colleagues at the nation’s law
schools — a disproportionate number of which are in or near Washington — might want to bring into
In 2011, more than
44,000 students graduated from the 200-odd U.S. law schools accredited by the
American Bar Association. Nine months after graduation, only a bit more than
half had found full-time jobs as lawyers.
The U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics forecasts 73,600 new lawyer jobs from 2010 to 2020. But just
three years into that decade, about 132,757 new lawyers have hit the job
While not every new
JD seeks employment as a lawyer, it is safe to say that planning to work as an
attorney is not rare among law students. But perhaps it should be. Data from
the National Association of Legal Career Professionals indicate that since
2010, about 75,000 new law grads have found full-time jobs as lawyers.
So, in theory, all
of the BLS-forecasted job openings through 2020 have already been filled, and
59,157 new lawyers are still looking for "real” law jobs.
Yes, of course some
of the JD graduates this year and in the years to come will find high-paying,
partner-track jobs at big firms and elsewhere. But the scale of the imbalance
over a decade gives some indication of just how tough it is — and will be — as
armies of newly minted JDs rise every year. By 2020, about 300,000 additional
grads will join those 59,157 in a hunt for jobs that, statistically, are not to
law-school enrollments have dipped slightly, these institutions have tenured
faculty to pay and often luxe facilities to maintain. Washington
is home to several schools with particularly large enrollments (as reported by
the ABA for 2011-2012): Georgetown,
at 2,216, is the nation’s largest law school; George
at 1,629, is fifth; and American
University, at 1,323, is
AU is even in
growth mode, as it undergoes a $130 million expansion to an eight-acre complex
near the Tenleytown Metro station. The new facilities would enable the school
to drastically increase enrollment, but AU plays that down, perhaps mindful
that 35 percent of its 2011 class had found full-time lawyer jobs nine months
The expansion "does not mean that we are compelled to have 2,000
students,” says AU law spokeswoman Franki Fitterer. "At present time we are not
planning to increase the JD program.”
Law students can
borrow today — often with federally guaranteed loans — the full cost of tuition
and expenses, and worry later about repaying what could total $237,000 for a
For years, the
return on investment made sense, as a law degree from a respected but not
stellar school seemed to promise a long, fairly lucrative career, with more
modest loans paid off in a 10-year span. But things changed as tuitions rose
sharply and employment and compensation lagged. Federal tuition-repayment plans
adjusted for low-earning lawyers now stretch to 25 years. If the loan is not
paid off at the 25-year mark, the balance is forgiven, and the taxpayers eat
"I’m not sure how
well-thought-out a lot of decisions [to invest in law school] are, in all
candor,” says Mark Medice, national program director for Peer Monitor, a
Thomson Reuters unit that tracks hiring and compensation data at large law
firms, which traditionally have offered the highest-paying jobs to new lawyers.
The market for new lawyers is so weak, says Medice, who himself has a JD and an
MBA, that the return on investment is questionable for those at all but the
most elite law schools. "If you have to pay $100,000 to do it, is it worth it?”
he wonders. "Arguably, no.”
Besides, most law
schools offer such a broad overview that legal education is "generic” and lacks
utility, Medice continues. While most law schools now claim some sort of
clinical or practical training, the broader trends may demand more fundamental
structure of the entire system needs to change, with number of JDs graduating
each year declining drastically. Medice envisions a new model, built around
year-long, hyper-specific skills — such as discovery, regulatory matters and
litigation support — that would quickly and relatively cheaply train students
for the kinds of legal jobs that are available.
compared with the Harvard Law world depicted in the 1973movie "Paper Chase,”
this trade-school model "could really benefit the industry in a cost-effective
way,” Medice says.
hundreds of thousands of law students are being trained for a profession that
no longer has room for most of them.
"It is hard to
describe the misery we are generating,” says Paul Campos, who has taught at
University of Colorado Law School since 1990. "We close our eyes to an entire
generation of people we are selling a bill of goods to. We have talked
ourselves into believing that what we are doing is defensible, and it’s not.
"It is not defensible to charge people $200,000 for a degree which is
worse than worthless. We have a systemic catastrophe on our hands.”
Campos blames the federal
loan program, which he says issues loans to cover any amount of tuition, to any
number of law students, with no regard for post-academic realities. In his Law
School Tuition Bubble blog, 2008 Marquette University JD Matt Leichter, who
writes frequently for AmLaw Daily, estimates that 2010 law school graduates
took on $3.6 billion in loans, and that students over the next decade (for whom
there are statistically zero jobs) will borrow $53 billion.
"If the federal
government applied any actuarial standards, half the law schools would shut
down tomorrow,” Campos
says. "The whole thing is a basically a giant subsidy machine run for the
benefit of legal education.”
Campos says his crisis of
confidence in his industry reached a tipping point in May 2010, when "one of my
all-time favorite students committed suicide a year to the day after he
graduated. He was a very, very thoughtful and gifted young guy; and the long
and the short of it, he couldn’t find a job.
"It was a
triggering event for me. I started doing some nitty-gritty research into how
many people were getting jobs, what kind of jobs and what level of debt. And I
was genuinely shocked.”
About a year after
his student’s death, Campos launched a blog,
Inside the Law School Scam, and he published a book in the same vein in
September, not long after Washington
University law professor
Brian Tamanaha’s well-received "Failing Law Schools.”
This is not a
crisis of the elites. The exceptional, those graduating at the top of their law
school classes at Stanford, Yale or Harvard will, as ever, do just fine. And
choosing to attend a third- or fourth-tier law program, which can have tuition
on par with the most-expensive elite schools, has long been seen as a dicey
Given that, perhaps
Chemerinsky is brilliant in his bid to create a Yale of the West. If the middle
is now doomed, the bottom has always been doomed, and only the elite are likely
to weather the storm, then join the elite.
But if UC-Irvine
Law ends up being just another respected middle-of-the-pack academy, its
graduates, who will soon number 200 a year, will join the crisis already
affecting the students of mid-tier schools.
Consider this: Of
the 576 who graduated George
this year, 20 percent — 112 — are employed as lawyers only because GWU pays
them $15 an hour, up to $525 each week, to do volunteer work. The average
indebtedness of GWU’s class of 2011 was $127,360. Trying to adjust, the school
trimmed first-year enrollment this fall by 16 percent, to 400.
grand colliding forces play out, the future may be ripe for what Peer Monitor’s
Medice envisioned: low-cost, bare-bones law programs that act more like trade
The law school at
the University of the District of
Columbia seems to be working in that vein. It is not
fancy, housed as it is in a newly renovated but far from swank building on
upper Connecticut Avenue.
It is not even ranked on an overall basis by U.S. News, though UDC’s curriculum
requiring hundreds of hours of hands-on training does rank 10th on U.S. News’s
list of top clinical programs in the country.
An embarrassingly low percentage — just 20.5 percent — of its 2011
graduates are reported as employed nine months post-graduation in full-time
jobs requiring a JD. A hyper-practical law degree from UDC is hardly a sure
But it doesn’t
pretend to be, and perhaps that is what is rather refreshing about it. UDC
Law’s dean, Shelley Broderick, is a wry, unpretentious former criminal defense
attorney who paid her way through Georgetown Law with loans and the proceeds of
her job as a Teamster working on the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
Here is her pitch,
delivered on a break from packing her own moving boxes, as she wore a work
shirt and flip-flops one afternoon in September: "It’s affordable, it’s
accessible, its curriculum is laser-focused on the kinds of jobs we are trying
to prepare you for. We don’t invite people to come here suggesting [they will]
get jobs in the big firms. That is not who we are. If you want to be a public
interest lawyer, public service lawyer, public policy lawyer, in private
practice in a small firm, this is perfect for you. Because you can do this in
an affordable way and find work that you are trained to do, educated to do. We
can’t all be Yale.”
UDC is dirt-cheap,
as law schools go. It charges D.C. residents $10,620 a year (with living expenses,
UDC costs $41,630; $52,750 for nonresidents).
And Broderick seems
to make her pitch with clear eyes and clear conscience.
make the same pitch if UDC cost $70,000 a year? Would "excellence” justify
"I couldn’t do it,”
Broderick says. "There are not jobs where you can pay that back in a reasonable
amount of time for the vast majority of people who go to law school. I couldn’t
do it, because it is a lie.”
Elizabeth Lesly Stevens last wrote for the Magazine about the
historic Carter’s Grove estate in Virginia.
To comment on this story, send e-mail to email@example.com.
Read more at NPR, "Is A Law Degree Still Worth It?"