Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California… (Bret Hartman/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
Erwin Chemerinsky is a noted constitutional law scholar who has devoted his career to legal education. He is also the founding dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine. Chemerinsky’s new school opened in 2009, amid the financial crisis and a related — and perhaps permanent — sharp constriction in the job market for new lawyers.
Though the University of California has four well-established law schools, Chemerinsky says UC-Irvine’s program fills an unmet need. Irvine, he says, “puts far more emphasis on preparing students to be lawyers at the highest level of the profession than perhaps other law schools.”
To do that, Irvine needed top-flight facilities and professors. Price, seemingly, is no object. UC-Irvine, a public university, offers the second-most-expensive legal education in the country. At more than $77,000 a year including living expenses for out-of-state students, a JD from Irvine tops the bill from Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Only the University of California at Berkeley, at almost $78,000, costs more.
Chemerinsky seems untroubled by this, arguing in an interview that Irvine is no more expensive than Stanford or the University of Southern California, really. He highlights the success of his first class of 56 students, which graduated in May. Nearly 80 percent have already found full-time jobs as lawyers. Excellence costs, he says, and, by implication, excellence pays.
“If we are not going to be subsidized by the state” at previous levels, Chemerinsky says, “and we are going to be a top-quality law school, there is not an alternative in terms of what it is going to cost. Everybody wishes it would be less expensive. But there is not a way to do it without compromising quality.”
There are a few other recent statistics that Chemerinsky and his colleagues at the nation’s law schools — a disproportionate number of which are in or near Washington — might want to bring into sharper focus.
In 2011, more than 44,000 students graduated from the 200-odd U.S. law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Nine months after graduation, only a bit more than half had found full-time jobs as lawyers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 73,600 new lawyer jobs from 2010 to 2020. But just three years into that decade, about 132,757 new lawyers have hit the job market.
While not every new JD seeks employment as a lawyer, it is safe to say that planning to work as an attorney is not rare among law students. But perhaps it should be. Data from the National Association of Legal Career Professionals indicate that since 2010, about 75,000 new law grads have found full-time jobs as lawyers.
So, in theory, all of the BLS-forecasted job openings through 2020 have already been filled, and 59,157 new lawyers are still looking for “real” law jobs.
Yes, of course some of the JD graduates this year and in the years to come will find high-paying, partner-track jobs at big firms and elsewhere. But the scale of the imbalance over a decade gives some indication of just how tough it is — and will be — as armies of newly minted JDs rise every year. By 2020, about 300,000 additional grads will join those 59,157 in a hunt for jobs that, statistically, are not to be found.
Though law-school enrollments have dipped slightly, these institutions have tenured faculty to pay and often luxe facilities to maintain. Washington is home to several schools with particularly large enrollments (as reported by the ABA for 2011-2012): Georgetown, at 2,216, is the nation’s largest law school; George Washington University, at 1,629, is fifth; and American University, at 1,323, is 10th.
AU is even in growth mode, as it undergoes a $130 million expansion to an eight-acre complex near the Tenleytown Metro station. The new facilities would enable the school to drastically increase enrollment, but AU plays that down, perhaps mindful that 35 percent of its 2011 class had found full-time lawyer jobs nine months after graduation.
The expansion “does not mean that we are compelled to have 2,000 students,” says AU law spokeswoman Franki Fitterer. “At present time we are not planning to increase the JD program.”
Law students can borrow today — often with federally guaranteed loans — the full cost of tuition and expenses, and worry later about repaying what could total $237,000 for a UC-Irvine-level education.
For years, the return on investment made sense, as a law degree from a respected but not stellar school seemed to promise a long, fairly lucrative career, with more modest loans paid off in a 10-year span. But things changed as tuitions rose sharply and employment and compensation lagged. Federal tuition-repayment plans adjusted for low-earning lawyers now stretch to 25 years. If the loan is not paid off at the 25-year mark, the balance is forgiven, and the taxpayers eat the loss.