The economic storm of recent years was particularly perilous for the legal industry and law schools, but despite encouraging signs, former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard said the dangers have not passed.
“For lawyers and law schools, the Great Recession continues,” Shepard told an audience Feb. 11 at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. He said the establishments have addressed many of the challenges with a glaring exception — “The changes we made in student aid have the potential for lasting harm to the profession and society.” He said the law school experience of recent years can be summed up in eight words: “Rising tuition, massive debt, fewer jobs, fewer applicants.”
Nevertheless, data on law school enrollment shows the first increase in applicants in six years, after a period in which law schools nationally graduated the fewest number of students since the Nixon administration. “Year after year we said to ourselves, ‘Where is the bottom?’” Shepard said. “Finally, maybe, it’s possible we found it.”
Shepard, who chaired the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, delivered the remarks as guest speaker at the James P. White Lecture Series on Legal Education. He said for years federal statistics have shown fewer jobs for lawyers than the number of law school graduates. At the same time, recent trends have shifted the greatest actual tuition costs to students who may lack the means to shoulder the debt. This is in part because schools have broadly shifted the basis for scholarships and grants from need to merit, a trend he said is driven by competition for U.S. News and World Report rankings, among other things.
“Just 20 years ago, nearly 60 percent of the financial aid given by American law schools was based solely on financial need students have. There’s reason to believe … today less than 20 percent is dispensed solely on the basis of need,” Shepard said. He said research confirms this shift to metrics such as LSAT scores favors white and wealthy students. As a result, “People with great scores can come to law school relatively cheaply regardless of their financial status, and those tuition losses are made up by kids who stand at the back of the pool and end up borrowing a lot of money to attend.”
What schools are doing
Indiana University Maurer School of Law Dean Austin Parrish has heard Shepard’s message and disagrees. He said the Bloomington law school gives students an average of $25,000 in annual scholarship aid and is in the lowest 25-percent of debt load graduates carry among law schools nationwide.
“For the first time, students are able to trade off prestige with cost,” Parrish said. Someone accepted at a higher-rated law school but without financial aid may qualify for significant or even full rides at IU Maurer or elsewhere. “That may not be the ideal situation, but when I went to law school, you couldn’t do that. … Students started competing on scholarship dollars instead of cost.” It also gives students a choice of paying for a degree they may see as more valuable or going to a law school that will leave them with less debt.
IU Maurer also has initiated flat-rate, locked-in tuition costs for incoming students. Parrish said the school has also aimed to establish cost predictability by offering non-conditional scholarships, and it is efficiently managing expenses without deep cuts. “We’re a high-cost, high-quality law school that has incredibly robust programming,” he said. “We have no interest in being a cheap organization.”
IU McKinney Dean Andrew Klein said the Indianapolis school offers the lowest cost among accredited Indiana law schools and the state’s only evening law program. “We are very conscious about the cost of law school for our students,” he said, while the school’s location offers opportunities for training and interaction with the bar “that puts graduates in a strong position to launch careers utilizing their legal education.”
Noting the school awarded $6 million in aid for the current academic year, Klein said the level of scholarship support will rise with the launch of an IU capital campaign. “I am confident that with the help of alumni and supporters, these numbers will increase in the years ahead.”
Klein insists law school remains a good deal. “It would be wrong to focus on the cost of law school without considering its value,” he said. “Studies show that, over a career, a legal education is a good economic investment.”
Indiana’s costliest program, Notre Dame Law School, pointed to its loan repayment assistance program that helps graduates in public interest or public service employment repay loans that are forgiven over a three-year period as long as the participant stays in public service or public interest for at least three years.
The program launched in 2001 has provided more than $1.1 million in aid to some 200 graduates.
Valparaiso University Law School said it awards select full-time, first-year students renewable scholarships based on “a variety of factors including academic achievements, an individual’s work, leadership, and service experience as well as other meritorious accomplishments.”
“Our goal is to create and foster a diverse law student and faculty community that reflects our society and is equipped to address the current and future challenges of the legal profession,” Dean Andrea Lyon said. “We are continually reviewing the law school’s processes and structure to ensure a sustainable model of high-quality legal education.”
Indiana Tech Law School in Fort Wayne, which is seeking ABA accreditation, announced in July 2015 it would extend 100 percent scholarships to current students. Dean Charles Cercone did not respond to a message seeking comment.
While law schools continue to emphasize the value of a J.D. degree, Shepard pointed out the great paradox between the number of grads not working in the legal profession and the rising number of people in need of legal services or who represent themselves in court. He said other states have permitted limited legal practice for people who don’t hold a law degree but may be credentialed as legal technicians.
“State courts, bars and law schools ought to move that discussion in a more purposeful way,” he said.
Meantime, law schools will have to contend with the realities of the legal marketplace in a time when the value proposition remains perhaps students’ most significant question.
“If we put on our recruitment brochure, ‘Come to our law school, there’s a 59 percent chance you’ll get to be a lawyer,’ that would be a problem,” Shepard said.•