“It’s a mess”

Today the New York Times published an article that should be required reading for anyone thinking of going to law school. The article focuses on Valparaiso, a fourth-tier law school in northwest Indiana. It tells a familiar tale of heavily indebted graduates with grim job prospects. While the article breaks little new ground, every article like this brings some hope that the message–which basically boils down to, don’t go to low-ranked law schools with lousy employment statistics–will reach its intended audience.

Valpo is a fairly typical low-ranked law school. Its “real” employment rate–the percentage of graduates with jobs that require a law license–is below fifty percent, and its bar passage rate recently plummeted from 77 to 61. Like far too many law schools, Valpo is charging people around $120,000 (annual tuition is $40,372) for at best a 50-50 chance of becoming a lawyer. It gets worse: only three of the 131 people who graduated from Valpo in 2015 got jobs with large law firms. The rest of the graduates who are fortunate enough to have jobs as lawyers probably make around $40,000 to $50,000.

I’m sure a lot of future law students will read this article and think, “this doesn’t apply to me because I’m going to ________ law school, not Valpo.” If you’re going to a law school ranked in the top 15 or 20, then you’re probably right. But it’s important to recognize that everything is relative. If you go to a second-tier law school and finish in the bottom half of the class, your job prospects and likelihood of passing the bar will be roughly equivalent to a top-quarter graduate from a place like Valpo.

The article eventually gets around to wondering whether law schools like Valpo should exist at all. If the alternative is continuing to charge people $120,000 for a 50-50 shot at becoming a modestly compensated attorney, then absolutely it should close. What probably should happen is that the school should figure out how many students it’s really “working” for. How many students in each class have a ninety-percent-or-higher chance of passing the bar and an approaching-eighty-or-ninety-percent chance of landing the kind of job they came to law school to get? I suspect that at a school like Valpo, the answer is around 20 to 30 students per class. I don’t know if it makes sense to have a law school with just 20 or 30 students in each class, but in a more just world, that’s the decision schools like Valpo would have to make. What Valpo is actually doing–reducing its student body by roughly one-third “over the next few years”–is just rearranging the deck chairs.

One final note on this: the article contains a rather tone-deaf quote from a constitutional law professor named Roaslie Levinson. Speaking about tenured professors accepting buyouts to leave the school, she says, “just personally, that was difficult.” I’m sure it was difficult seeing friends and longtime colleagues essentially paid off to go away, but something tells me those folks, and Ms. Levinson, are going to be OK.

The person who almost certainly will not be OK, at least financially, is Sarah Tapia, a 2015 Valpo graduate profiled in the article. Tapia has failed the Indiana bar twice, she has “massive” debt, and she’s working in the clothing department of a Meijer store in Goshen, Indiana. But Tapia is not Valpo’s problem anymore. Her tuition checks cleared, thanks to the federal student loan program, and the money went to pay the salaries of people like Ms. Levinson and the buyouts for her former colleagues.

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