Lawyers Journal

When the law school bubble finally bursts

The law economy in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts annually suffers the introduction of 2,500 newly minted lawyers competing for approximately 720 identifiable paying jobs. Those new lawyers come to the commonwealth from nine law schools resident in the state1 and another seven law schools resident in the contiguous New England states.2

With the exception of three law schools that tend to place their graduates in large national law firms, federal government agencies and academic positions,3 most graduates of the New England law schools direct their job searches to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.The math is both incontrovertible and depressing. Each year, these 16 law schools churn out more than 1,500 graduates who will not have jobs as practicing lawyers when they pass the bar and likely will never have satisfactory careers as fulltime practicing lawyers able to financially support themselves and a family.

The Massachusetts Bar Association is actively engaged in the evaluation of the facts and circumstances that animate this problem. Led by Chairs Eric Parker and Rhada Natarajan, the Task Force on Law, the Economy and Underemployment comprises outstanding individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds:

  • Hon. David Ricciardone, Massachusetts Superior Court, Boston;
  • Heather Engman, Esq., Thornton & Naumes, Boston;
  • Kyle R. Guelcher, Esq., Law Office of Kyle Guelcher, Springfield;
  • John B. Koss, Esq., Mintz Levin, Boston;
  • Marc A. Moccia, Esq., Suffolk Law School 2011 graduate, Boston;
  • Denise I. Murphy, Esq., Rubin & Rudman, Boston;
  • Lynn Sari Muster, Esq., Massachusetts Appeals Court, Boston;
  • Elizabeth O'Connell, prelaw advisor, Wellesley College, Wellesley;
  • Doreen M. Rachal, Esq., Bingham McCutchen, Boston;
  • Paul Edward White, Esq., Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, Boston; and
  • Marc P. Zwetchkenbaum, Esq., Marc Z Legal Staffing, Boston.

In addition, the deans of Suffolk, Boston College and Northeastern have appointed faculty members to serve as liaisons to the task force. The task force will present an interim, informational report to the House of Delegates in March. It will publish its final report and present any proposed resolutions (and perhaps draft legislation) at the May House of Delegates meeting. The work is extraordinarily important to our profession and we owe a debt of gratitude to the task force members.

But, like all matters related to the economy, forces beyond the direct control of the involved players are at work as we ponder the problems of the law economy. And professor William D. Henderson of Indiana University's Maurer School of Law addressed at least one set of forces that is bound to have an impact.4

Professor Henderson's data is sickening.

"In 2010, 85 percent of law graduates from ABA-accredited schools boasted an average debt load of $98,500, according to data collected from law schools by U.S. News & World Report. At 29 schools, that amount exceeded $120,000. In contrast, only 68 percent of those grads reported employment in positions that require a JD nine months after commencement. Less than 51 percent found employment in private law firms."

We know from information developed by our task force that individual debt for law school alone can reach as high as $200,000.

Professor Henderson looked at the problem from the source of those borrowed funds; viz., the federal government. (You can read that term as "we the taxpayers.")

"Direct federal loans have become the lifeblood of graduate education, and they shelter law schools financially from the structural changes affecting the profession. The bills are now coming due for many young lawyers, and their inability to pay will likely bring the scrutiny of lawmakers already moaning about government spending." Warnings about the reliance on federal dollars to undergird law school financial structures have been issued by knowledgeable people for many years, according to Dean Phoebe A. Haddon of the University of Maryland School of Law.

But now, in the face of unemployed law school graduates who cannot repay their loans, Henderson poses the rhetorical question: "Why should the U.S. government, through the Department of Education direct-lending program, continue to make billions of dollars of loans to law students when structural changes in the legal market suggest that a large portion will lack the earning power to repay those loans?"

Why indeed, as the funding crisis of our state courts so clearly demonstrates, when tax dollars are declining and legislators confront difficult choices among many worthy programs (and specifically ones directed at homeland security and "widows and orphans") less important programs are eliminated or cut short?

Terminating federal funding of law school tuitions will result in many law schools closing their doors. Professor Henderson posits one outcome that many in our profession would welcome: "the Education Department using its accreditation authority to force law schools to demonstrate, as a condition of receiving federal loan money, a minimum threshold of employability and income upon graduation."

That would work.

1Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Suffolk, New England, Western New England, Massachusetts School of Law, UMASS, and Harvard.
2Vermont, University of New Hampshire, University of Maine, UCONN, Roger Williams, Quinnipiac, Yale.
3Harvard, Yale and Boston College.
4W.D. Henderson and R.M. Zahorsky, The Law School Bubble: How Long Will It Last If Law Grads Can't Pay Bills?, ABA Journal, January, 2012; republished with permission in Massachusetts Bar Association's Lawyers Journal, February 2012.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association