I am a K-JD who is attending a 4th tier law school on a full-tuition scholarship, and will incur exactly $0 educational debt because of my parents being thrifty and generous with their middle-class income (I also graduated debt free from a small private college through scholarships, the money I made, and my parents).
I learned of the law school scam a little over a year ago when I stumbled onto LawProf's blog. Before I had been relatively happy; bored of the classes but okay with my new friends and grades. I don't remember what the newest post was on Inside the Law School Scam, but the implications terrified me. Being more amenable to the right-wing/conservative views on economic issues, I had read about and even written on the higher education tuition bubble, but I had never questioned the value of attending law school, even (especially) for free. After a few weeks of sizable internal struggle, I decided that because I wanted to be a prosecutor for a small to mid-sized town, it made more sense for me to graduate debt free than to transfer to a better school (for whatever reason dropping out altogether was not part of the equation).
What is interesting about the very bottom of law schools, from a general perspective, is that things have been bad before the Great Recession, at least since the 1990's when tuition really began to increase, if not earlier. They were able to skate by for a variety of reasons that many of you are familiar with: much of the focus has always been on the elite law schools, they kept their tuition a couple levels under the elites, and the overall okay economies of the Clinton and Bush administrations (aside from the hiccup in the mid 90's and the crash in 2007) masked the struggles of their graduates.
Because of their lesser sophistication of the legal education situation (though that has been rapidly changing, at least in my school: a 2L class shirt recently had text that said: "I spend $150,000 on law school and all I got was this lousy shirt"), I think the views of those from the bottom of the law school pack have been underrepresented in these discussions (notwithstanding the excellent and entertaining Third Tier Reality and others).
LSAC applicant statistics have shown the largest decline in test-takers among those who score in the highest percentiles, and commentators even outside the profession have noted that "the wrong people are applying to law school."
This masks the incredible pressure that schools like the one I attend are facing. Even though there are more people percentage-wise not scoring in the top percentile of the LSAT, numerically there is a much larger decline among the lower-scoring LSAT takers, and this presents an existential problem among those in the lower tiers.
How are they going to maintain their "elite" model while dealing with involuntarily smaller incoming classes? They are going to be further squeezed through the "transfer game" (my school's 1L class seems to lose 25-35 students a year). If the trend continues to this year then I have estimated that the next incoming class (of 2016) will be half of what my 2L class is (2014) currently, adjusted for their transfer loss.
There is not an endowment, the alumni do not give, LSAT medians have gone down, and there is close to an open-admission policy already. So what is happening that is of interest here that could be said to be in response to this crisis?
(1) a very small tuition increase (it might actually be a very small decrease when adjusted for inflation), and (2) retooling the curriculum so students get more feedback, are better prepared for the bar, and get more practical experience. I think 15-20 years ago a focus on very small tuition increases and a much better curriculum would have been laudable and even effective. Now it just seems like they are rearranging the cell blocks on the Death Star, while the cynic in me wonders if the curriculum changes are designed to boost bar passage rates a little in preparation for a 10% increase in acceptances.
The view from the bottom is not pretty, and especially so for expensive, private law schools who place less than half their graduates in real lawyer jobs. Vermont Law School is just the first of the proton torpedoes. The proposal to merge the two Rutgers law schools is the second.
Many of these expensive, low-ranked, and poorly performing law schools are going to have to close. But some do, according to Professor Bill Henderson, provide a clear niche by placing better than many tier one law schools. The subject for a future post will be to lay out a few paths for those schools to bring the costs into line with their credential. Meanwhile, keep your eyes on the schools on the bottom end. Though a lot of talk is about Columbia's massive transfer acceptance, Georgetown's relatively poor placement rates for its supposed prestige, or Virginia hiring 20% of its graduates, the real action is at the lower tiers. Keep your eyes peeled for the next salvo.