The Ethics of Turning Out Students in Debt

By Patrick G. Lee

In a few years’ time, America’s law schools will be churning out fewer debt-ridden law school grads casting about for jobs.

At least three schools have announced plans to slim down the size of incoming classes amidst general concerns about the struggling legal market, Inside Higher Ed reports. (And here’s an item on the development from the ABA Journal.)

The three schools – Creighton University School of Law in Nebraska, and Touro Law Center and Albany Law School in New York – are the first to shrink first-year law school classes partly in response to complaints that schools should not continue admitting high volumes of students, given the lofty debt loads they must assume along along with their uncertain job prospects, according to Inside Higher Ed.

“It is the ethical and moral thing to do,” Lawrence Raful, Touro’s law dean, told the New York Law Journal earlier this year. “I think we are concerned about the ethics of turning out quite so many students in debt when we know that not everyone can get a job to pay off that debt.”

But other factors are at play as well. Despite a spike in law school applications last year, they dropped by about 11 percent this year, a trend mirrored by decreases in the number of LSAT takers. (Read the LB’s coverage here.)

With fewer applicants, law schools face tougher competition in getting the best students, which is especially an issue of concern for second- and third-tier law schools intent on maintaining and climbing the U.S. News rankings.

John Yoo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, argues in a blog post on Ricochet that shrinking 1L classes makes sense in the context of supply and demand.

“The decision to reduce the size of a law school class has little to do with morality (though it may have a lot to do with moralizing) and everything to do with economics,” he writes. “The producers (law schools) sell a service (legal education) at a price (tuition) to consumers (students).”

Given the shrinking demand for law school education – or, as Yoo would put it, a high-priced product in oversupply – it only makes sense that the “quantity will fall until the market clears,” Yoo concludes.

Bill Henderson, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, told the Law Blog that law schools traditionally generated prestige, donor opportunities and revenue for universities, which made them attractive ventures to start up in the academic world.

Now, it seems, the trend is reversing – at least for awhile. Perhaps the next hot thing will be med school. We’ll always need doctors, right?

http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2011/06/21/the-slightly-shrinking-legal-academy/

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