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The class structure of American legal education


This is a followup to Scott’s post about how a GULC adjunct got cancelled for making the same sort of trenchant observations that made Andrew “I may be gay but I’m still white and male” Sullivan famous back in the day.

What I want to focus on here is the class stratification at elite law schools, and the ripple effects it has throughout the rest of legal education in America. Class has of course a complex but all the more crucial relationship to race and ethnicity in these contexts, which always needs to be teased out carefully.

The first thing to note is how insanely expensive elite law schools have gotten: the three-year full cost of attendance is now over or close to $300,000 at all of them. (Old Economy Paul paid $4,500 in tuition during my first year of law school in 1986-87 — which to be fair is $10,600 in 2021 dollars. At the time Michigan was the most expensive public law school in the country for in-state residents. In-state tuition is now $64,000).

And at these schools, the effective cost of attendance — that is cost after discounts — is on average about 80% of the advertised full cost. Note that tuition discounting at all these schools other than Harvard, Yale, and Stanford consists almost wholly of “merit-based” discounts, misleadingly labeled “scholarships,” when in fact they are merely straight discounts on the sticker price. This means of course that these “scholarships” are actually cross-subsidized discounts, paid for by students who don’t get them to students who do.

And since, again with the exception of HYS, the discounts are “merit-based,” this means that as a functional matter the poorer students subsidize the attendance of the richer ones, since “merit” is a shorthand for higher LSAT and GPA scores, which are in turn to a considerable extent proxies for class privilege.

At HYS discounts on the full cost of attendance are need-based, but even a student who gets the maximum available grant — this requires having no personal assets, and coming from a family with essentially no financial resources — will still have to take out $150,000 or so in loans to cover the three-year cost of attendance.

All this adds up to big debt loads for students who don’t happen to have $300,000 in cash lying around. Note that the published debt loads of law students are very significantly understated for three reasons: they don’t include accrued interest on loans, or loan origination fees, or other educational debt. Thus when when we see that 2019 GULC graduates with law school debt at graduation had an average of $166K in such debt, we can estimate conservatively that the real figure for these graduates is probably north of $200K (accrued loan interest alone kicks that $166K to around $190K).

Ah, but there’s a crucial caveat here: only 66% of GULC law grads in 2019 graduated with ANY law school debt. This figure is typical for current graduates of elite law schools: about one-third of all such graduates have no law school debt at all, ranging from a high of 38% at Stanford to a low of 28% at Michigan.

Given that almost no students at elite law schools have to pay less than $150K out of pocket to attend, with the average three year actual cost of attendance after discounts now being around $250K, what this tells us is that a huge percentage of students at these schools come from what Mitt Romney would call an upper middle class background, but which people who aren’t partners at Bain would call very rich families — the kind that do happen to have $300,000 just sort of lying around, to make sure Caleb and Marissa still find themselves in what Victorian novelists called “easy circumstances” after they acquire their pricey sheepskins. (The floor for the 99th percentile of household wealth in 2016 was $10.3 million, which means that well over one million US households have eight-figure or more wealth).

The great thing about easy circumstances is that they make everything else a lot easier, such as performing on tests while knowing that you don’t need to excel on them to avoid something between decades of debt bondage and flat-out financial disaster. They also let you, if you are so inclined, pursue jobs you would really like to do, as opposed to billing 2400 hours a year (this means working 3200) to help the VerriBig Corporation of America strip mine the third world. Etc.

But the debt is just part of the picture. Success in the sort of elitist prestige-obsessed sectors of the profession to which these schools send or aspire to send their graduates depends in no small part on aspirants having plenty of the right sort of cultural capital: what Lauren Rivera in her book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs classifies, using her informants’ own vocabulary, as “polish.” Non-upper class students, especially non-white ones, are going to feel constantly out of place at elite institutions, because they are out of place.

These places are carefully guarded class preserves, whose whole purpose is to replicate the class hierarchy, while striving to maintaining just enough mobility in it to make their essentially anti-democratic nature not too outrageous on its face.

Which gets us back to money. A huge factor in maintaining that hierarchy has been simply making these places so expensive that non-upper class people have to pay an extremely steep literal and metaphorical price to attend.

Harvard Law School charged tuition of $5,500 IN 2021 DOLLARS in the mid-1950s. The reason it charges 12 times that now is twofold: because it can, and because it wants to. (HLS is in this respect absolutely no different from any other elite or semi-elite or wannabe elite law school).

There is no earthly reason it should cost 12 times more per student to crank out lawyers now than it did a couple of generations ago. And the consequences of this ripple throughout the system: If elite law schools are charging 65K and 70K in annual tuition alone now, that means that your average private law school thinks it’s offering “value” when it charges $50K, leaving aside that Harvard wasn’t even charging that much in real dollars a dozen years ago, and that HLS grads have shall we say somewhat different career options from those enjoyed by average law school grads.

Beyond this, students with great paper credentials who don’t come from big money face the choice of attending an elite law school at an insane price, or taking a big “scholarship” at a non-elite school, where their education will be subsidized by their fellow students via cross-subsidization (see above).

This of course means that the playing field is further tilted toward upper class students getting elite jobs, because they can literally afford to play the game in a way that the less privileged can’t. And all of this also works to replicate pre-existing racial and ethnic hierarchies (the median white family has about nine times more net worth than the average Black family).

Just some things to keep in mind the next time Bari Weiss complains about how somebody made a rich white person feel bad about being rich and white. Oops that happened again while I was typing that sentence.

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