For decades, Hollywood, television, the media and popular fiction have romanticized lawyers and the legal profession.
These notions seeped into our collective consciousness and created the perception that all lawyers make lots of money and live glamorous lives.
No other institution in this country benefitted more from this perception (or misperception) than law schools, with promises of high-paying jobs at prestigious law firms in large cities.
However, most of these promises proved illusory, as jobs remained in short supply (especially for for-profit law school graduates).
The crushing burden of student loan debt, usually hitting $150,000-$200,000, has caused many to ask the question, are for-profit law schools a scam?
More lawyers, fewer jobs and more debt
There are approximately 1.3 million licensed attorneys in the United States. This is up 20 percent from 10 years ago. The lawyer unemployment rate is 11 percent higher than the national unemployment rate.
In other words, there are far more lawyers fighting for far fewer jobs. This is true, in spite of a 36 percent drop in law school applications since 2010.
Some law schools have been complicit in driving these alarming statistics by not accurately reporting their job placement data.
For example, one class-action lawsuit criticized a law school for classifying a former law student as employed because she worked as a barista at Starbucks within the nine-month period after graduation.
This is not a recent phenomenon, and it prompted organizations, like the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, to create the “Truth In Law School Education” in 2011.
The commission has achieved some success because law schools have to list where students are employed, and salary information is now provided.
Many law students come out of school with between $150,000 and $200,000 in debt and the six-figure jobs needed to pay that kind of debt back are only available to those at top-flight law schools who finish at the top of their classes.
Rarely are these jobs available for for-profit law school graduates.
If a law school meets certain criteria, then it is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). If a law school is ABA accredited, then student loans are federally subsidized.
This means the federal government foots the bill and the debt is non-dischargeable, meaning it cannot be erased in an bankruptcy.
The for-profit law school scam
In September 2014, The Atlantic reporter, Paul Campos, wrote an article entitled, “The Law-School Scam,” where he chronicled for-profit law schools and the plight of many of their graduates.
Most law schools are non-profit and are much more selective in the students they admit. For-profit law schools, however, admit large numbers of students, many of whom are severely underqualified.
For-profit law schools accept many students with LSAT (standardized test used to assess potential law students) with scores well below the national mean of 151.
One of the largest for-profit schools' 2013 entering class had a median LSAT of 144, which was the 23rd percentile of all test-takers.
In other words, for-profit schools are flooding the market with graduates who cannot pass the bar exam and who likely could not get jobs even if they could pass the bar exam.
Americans are projected to incur nearly $1.3 trillion in student debt over the next 11 years; it will be the next big bubble to burst.
For-profit law schools are extremely profitable for their owners (usually hedge funds) and cheap to operate, but they offer little return on their investment for the students.
In his article, Campos cites data that claims that 90 percent of students graduating from schools owned by the company owning the largest number of law schools will have debt of $204,000. Multiply this by thousands, and there is a major problem.
Non-profit law schools rarely have more than a few hundred in a class. For-profit schools churn out classes of thousands of students.
In for-profit law schools, those who obtained federal clerkships or jobs with large law firms is below 1 percent.
In other words, the odds of students from these schools obtaining jobs that pay enough to pay off student debt are 100 to 1.
This country needs lawyers, but something in the system must change.
Lawyers are vital to this country’s continued success, but we need well-educated lawyers. Complex constitutional issues exist and will continue to exist, and lawyers are needed to ensure all of our civil liberties are protected.
Businesses and the government need lawyers, especially in areas like health-care law and LGBTQ law.
But still, something needs to be done about this debt.
Students, graduates and future lawyers cannot continue to be saddled with debt they can never realistically pay off. Ultimately, the debt can lead (and has led) to rising rates of depression, suicide and financial crimes against clients.
It is difficult to blame one group for the problem, but the problem has a solution. Non-profit law schools, for-profit law schools, the government and other financial institutions need to work together to find a solution.
It is overly simplistic and inaccurate to call for-profit law schools a scam, but they do need to offer a better return on investment for their students.
Publicly-traded companies that do not offer a good return on investment for students should go out of business, and the same goes for law schools that do not offer a good return on investment.