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The traffic in law degrees will be permitted, but controlled

[ 43 ] February 14, 2014 |

And there will be the peace.

Legal education has been ground zero for practically all of the major challenges facing higher education: rising tuition, rising student debt, a contracted job market, and resulting questions about the utility and value of the degree. Unsurprisingly, there has been a steady drumbeat of bad publicity that has exposed the sausage-making side of law schools to unprecedented scrutiny.

As a result, applications are down more than a third in just three years. First-year enrollments are at their lowest levels in almost 40 years and down 24 percent since the rec­ord high just three years ago. Moreover, declining Law School Admission Test registrations, a proverbial canary, suggest those enrollment trends have yet to bottom out.

That has led colleges to lay off faculty and staff members and to revisit pricing strategies; a few have even gone as far as lowering tuition to attract more students—an unthinkable move during the boom. But lost in the din of negativity is a milestone that deserves cautious celebration: Law schools, as a whole, are more racially and ethnically diverse than ever.

Readers of ITLSS may remember Aaron Taylor as the law professor who promotes the quasi-bankruptcy provisions of federal loan programs as “back end scholarships.”

Now he’s back, celebrating increasing law school “diversity” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Translation: Members of demographic groups possessing on average high amounts of financial and cultural capital, and the social options such capital enables, are fleeing law school in droves, and are being replaced by members of demographic groups with less capital and fewer options. (Median household income among Asian Americans is 34% higher than among Americans overall, and 21% higher than that of white Americans, and I am disaggregating the data on minority enrollment to reflect this).

Indeed the relevant numbers are a good deal more striking (or starker, depending on one’s perspective) than Taylor’s analysis reveals.

Consider:

In 2009-10 whites and Asian-Americans made up 43,546 of that year’s entering ABA law school class.

This past fall these groups sent approximately 30,375 matriculants to law school — a decline of 30.2%.

Meanwhile, while 8,101 members of ethnic minority groups (excluding Asian-Americans) enrolled in ABA law schools in 2009-10, approximately 9,300 members of these groups matriculated in the fall of 2013 — a 14.8% increase.

Highly qualified minority applicants are in great demand at elite law schools, and the proportion of minority matriculants at such schools has remained stable.

What appears to be happening is that sub-elite law schools, and in particular low-ranked law schools, are selling (quite literally) the social cachet traditionally associated with the legal profession to members of traditionally marginalized groups. The historical fact that members of such groups, and in particular young people in these groups, are especially vulnerable to exploitation by powerful social actors ought to raise a red flag for anyone considering the meaning of these statistics.

Comments (43)

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  1. Wowza says:

    Outstanding godfather reference.

    “In my [law school], we would keep the traffic in the dark people – the colored. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”

  2. Eli Rabett says:

    FWIW these groups are underserved by the current law profession and overserved by the criminal justice complex. Perhaps this will have an effect.

    • dave says:

      Spoiler Alert: It won’t.

      • Eli Rabett says:

        There is a long history in big cities of night law schools populated by cops and firemen and social workers graduating lawyers who serve these populations. Why not?

        • Major Rager says:

          1) So we’re going to fix the problem of racism in the criminal justice system by shackling more minority students to the crippling amounts of debt they’re going to incur for what are nearly worthless law degrees from non-elite schools? I guess if I had known a law degree granted that kind of power I would have reversed the course of the U.S. drug war myself, even though I’m white.
          2) I live and work in Chicago and know hundreds of lawyers who went to school in the city. Have yet to meet an ex-cop, ex-fireman, or ex-social worker among them. Admittedly I don’t know everyone’s backstory, but the cops and firemen here make better money than 90% of the kids going to Kent, DePaul, Marshall or Loyola are ever going to see from the legal profession. My first legal job paid $35k. I believe CPD starts around $60k. Why in God’s name would any of these people go to law school, even if their population is “underserved” by the profession.

          • Eli Rabett says:

            Well first of all, let Eli google that for you. Second, after 20 years on the beat police and fire can retire and need a second career. The night law schools, at least in the past were not very expensive and the police and fire folk had useful contacts with the local prosecutor;s etc. No, they didn’t go to the white shoe firms but mostly small practices associated with law enforcement.

            • JoyfulA says:

              I recall one of the PA State Supreme Court justices started off as a beat cop.

              Do urban law schools still offer night school?

              • Davis X. Machina says:

                My dad did a night JD at Suffolk back when 90% of their business was at night, and there were quite a few of that stripe — not now, though. Those kinds of law school all went up-market years ago.

              • NewishLawyer says:

                Many including mine still have night/part-time programs and not all of those are TTTs.

              • Eli Rabett says:

                Try the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago. FWIW they have a Law Enforcement Students Organization “to support student law enforcement officers throughout the law school process.”

                Oh yeah there were linke to JMS on the google eli gave.

                • Andrew says:

                  John Marshall School of Law is $41,000 dollars a year. By increasing the tuition to that amount the faculty, administrators, and trustees made a conscious decision to stop preparing lawyers to help underserved populations.

                • Eli Rabett says:

                  If you go full time. The night school (11 credits) is 16015/semester so $32,030/year plus maybe a couple of hundred for fees and annoyances. If you have health insurance from your day job they will probably waive the $1510 cost. People doing this sort of thing with a day job often don;t even enroll for the entire 11 credits.

                • Andrew says:

                  Still exorbitantly and unconscionably expensive.

              • Hogan says:

                I recall one of the PA State Supreme Court justices started off as a beat cop.

                Yes, the great Seamus McCaffery, who once presided over Eagles Court.

            • PaulB says:

              In Boston during the 1970s, it was common for cops, along with insurance clerks at John Hancock or MIT grads who decided they hated engineering to go to Suffolk at night. Back then, tuition was sufficiently inexpensive that you could afford to pay tuition simply by tightening your belt rather than taking out loans. Since then, the economic position of uniformed public employees and small law attorneys has completely altered.

              • Lee Rudolph says:

                Since then, the economic position of uniformed public employees and small law attorneys has completely altered.

                Apparently so. From today’s Boston Globe:

                In the Police Department, 1,604 staffers—more than half the payroll—made more than $100,000. The Fire Department had an even larger share of employees paid above that level. According to the records, 68 percent of the Fire Department’s workforce—1,146 people out of 1,690—made more than $100,000.

                Boston’s estimated median income in 2011 was $49,081, according to the US Census Bureau. The payroll records released by the city included 22,469 full- and part-time employees. Boston had the equivalent of roughly 16,000 full-time employees as of Jan. 1, according to the city.

                The largest payout went to police Officer Baltazar Darosa, who made $293,892.24, records show. Police department employees accounted for 29 of the city’s top 30 earners. The one exception was former schools superintendent Carol R. Johnson, who was paid $264,000.

            • Major Rager says:

              Thanks for that google link. When I want to know what OL’s are gossiping about idiotically, I make sure to check out a Top Law Schools comment thread.

              Anyway it’s funny you mention the second career. After my first job I hooked on with the state. All of our investigators were ex-police. Not being brain damaged, none of them were dropping six figures on a law degree in their late 40s/early 50s. Why not work a relatively easy job and get a second pension instead?

              “local prosecutors”

              Yes these are hiring like gangbusters. After the Cook County DA works its way through the substantial list of children of the politically connected with JD’s they start working through the list of ex-cops. So probably about 4-5 such hires since the economy tanked in 08.

              “small practices associated with law enforcement”

              I will admit there are tens of jobs with these types of practices in the city and I have no doubt that there are some ex-cops among them.

            • Deggjr says:

              Let Eli google that for you, great line. The google results from the link, not so great. Ads, anecdotes and stories from 1994 aren’t very convincing.

          • Gwen says:

            When I was in law school about seven years ago at Houston, I think we had maybe one ex-cops and one guy who was an ex-fire fighter. In a section of 90 people. Maybe one or two others in our entire graduating class (about 250).

            So yeah, it’s maybe like 2 or 3 percent of the class at a second-tier, commuter law school.

            I now work as a tech support engineer, btw (I passed the bar, but I never could find a solid job in law, and got bored/frustrated/broke trying). But at least my total debt was “only” in the mid-five figures, unlike some people. HOORAY TEXAS MIRACLE ECONOMY.

            • Gwen says:

              And to be clear, I’m now making about median national household income (just shy of $50k), not bad for a single-person household at age 31, I guess, especially in the HOORAY TEXAS LOW-WAGE ECONOMY.

  3. Lurker says:

    The sad thing here is that having law become a profession where younger age groups are dominated by persons from low socioeconomic strata, both white and minority, spells an end to the concept of law as a profession.

    The prohibition of non-lawyers owning law firms is going down the gutter already. The influx of minorities into the field is likely to remove social barriers for making law into an ordinary white collar job.

    I don’t care, because I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I think it is an interesting phenomenon to observe in the coming years, in a train-wreck sort of way.

    • NewishLawyer says:

      “The prohibition of non-lawyers owning law firms is going down the gutter already.”

      What is your proof for this?

      In general, I agree though. There was an Atlantic article this week about how law might have also become a service position more than a profession. I did not completely buy the article and it was done more as a cautionary tale for medicine.

      The whole economy seems to be an absolute puzzle with a lot of chaos thrown in. The Middle Class is collapsing/disappearing but there is also sorts of contrary data. There is data that shows that not going to college/university is likely to damn you but I have also heard that around 1/3 of college graduates might have it much worse economically than high school grads or maybe drop-outs.

      It used to be fairly easy to predict how groups of people with like characteristics would end up socio-economically and now it is all over the map. I graduated law school in 2011 and we are all over the map: A good number of my friends did get jobs at small and medium sized firms and are seemingly on their way to decent careers (I am including people who work for their parents in this group). Others are working as paralegals and other support staff, others are out of law completely in jobs ranging from decent to horrible, and then there are people like me who are doing okay but are stuck as perma-temps. It is all a mess.

      • Jose Padilla says:

        The rapid growth of house counsel, where the lawyer is an employee rather than a professional, is the best evidence of the corporate practice of law (allegedly illegal in most states, yet flourishing).

  4. Burt Harbinson says:

    Was this supposed to be a parody by Professor Taylor? Do these shills realize how ridiculous they sound? Over on taxprof blog a commenter compared law schools touting diversity to payday lenders and check cashing places. That might be too kind to the check cashing places. At least they provide quick cash for matters like keeping the lights on or providing food.

  5. djw says:

    Readers of ITLSS may remember Aaron Taylor as the law professor who promotes the quasi-bankruptcy provisions of federal loan programs as “back end scholarships.”

    That Shakespeare dude had a point.

  6. NewishLawyer says:

    Also scammers know scamming. Once a scam dries up, they move to the next one

  7. cppb says:

    I’m about to graduate from one of those Chicago schools, and I do know one firefighter currently going through school at night, and know of one or two more through friends at other schools. Those jobs pay well in Chicago, but they’re hard to do through middle age (and the ones paying attention know that Illinois will do anything it can not to pay their pensions). That’s not to say I disagree with the point that it’s both uncommon and not likely to result in a rash of lawyers who will transform our legal system into one that serves working people, but I think there are certainly those who go to school with that idea, or some version of it.

  8. Lasker says:

    I was under the impression that police often used a law degree to help move higher in the police hierarchy, not to become lawyers. So you could therefore see a lot of cops in law school and yet very few lawyers who were ex-cops. Am I mistaken?

    • kindasorta says:

      The FBI looks for JDs in hiring agents, but they don’t exclusively hire JDs. State and municipal law enforcement could give a damn whether you have a JD. In most big city departments, you’ll need an undergraduate degree to make it past sergeant (which you attain through experience and a departmental exam), but otherwise no one would care.

    • Paul Campos says:

      I’ve heard cops talk about becoming DAs after putting in their 20, on the assumption that they’ll have an in with the office. Don’t know how often this pans out, as it’s not unusual these days for police to make more than DAs in a lot of cities, with overtime and all, and the DAs aren’t too crazy about that situation.

      AFAIK there’s no professional advantage for an active member of a police department to get a JD.

      • Mrs Tilton says:

        When I sat the NY bar the guy to my left was a cop close to retirement. (He looked surprisingly young for that, I thought). He’d done the night school thing. I asked if he intended to go to work for the DA’s office or (mischievously) become a criminal defence attorney. HELLS NO was his answer; he was moving way out on the Island to open a solo shop, draft wills, conveyance houses etc. What he wanted was the modest social cachet of being a small-town lawyer in a middle-class suburb, and a bit of fee income to top up his pension.

    • Marek says:

      In Massachusetts, the Quinn Bill (for communities that adopt its provisions) provides for substantial pay differentials for police who get degrees related to their work. A J.D. is the most lucrative of these, something like a 30% bonus to pay. So it’s not so much for moving up in the department, but still true that some police officers will obtain JDs and remain police officers in the Commonwealth (God save it!).

  9. Burt Harbinson says:

    The DAs offices in the 5 boroughs, Nassau and Westchester are not populated with former cops.

    The Manhattan DA’s office includes people who had revoked offers from big firms, in addition to graduates of top schools who come from well off families that don’t have to worry about law school loans.

  10. Todd says:

    This is racial exploitation pure and simple. With reverse robin hood scholarships law schools were using minorities to pay for the tuition of students with high gpas and lsats so they could move up in us news. Now law schools are using minorities to fill seats even though they know that many of these minorities will never pass the bar. law schools have the responsibility to only accept students who will probably pass the bar.

  11. BoredJD says:

    The targeting of lower-income communities for law school recruitment, in my mind, the dirtiest, slimiest aspect of the scam. Add in the fact that need-based scholarships are effectively dead at all American law schools not named HYS, and the law schools are essentially the same as the for-profits. We should be getting people to stay away from the sinking ship that is the “profession,” not sucking in vulnerable people.

    There’s nothing that will set an upwardly mobile person back like 200K of student loan debt that can’t be discharged.

  12. Martha M. says:

    BoredJD. You are right the targeting of minorities by law school deans is disgusting. They claim they stand for social justice, but they have no problem using minorities and the poor when it serves their purposes. The merit scholarships used minorities because the deans knew that minorities generally have lower LSAT scores than whites and asians. Now they are recruiting minorities to fill seats, even if a particular student has a poor chance of passing the bar or getting a job. Instead of calling themselves liberals these deans should call themselves cutthroat capitalists because that is exactly what they are.

  13. Anon says:

    Why isn’t Nancy Leong writing about the racial exploitation by law schools. Economic destruction is worse than being called comely.

  14. Philip Arlington says:

    The main social role of underprivileged minorities in western countries is now to provide opportunities for (mostly white) privileged people to feel morally superior without making personal sacrifices or controlling their base appetites. The consequences for the underprivileged are always out of focus. (But they’d better stay bad, or how are future generations of privileged people going to get their do-gooding thrills? The supply of victims of society must be maintained at all costs.)

    Identity politics and fairness to individuals are irreconcilable. It’s time to start treating everyone fairly without regard to gender or skin colour.

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