As far as I can tell, Jeff Harrison's November 26 post on possible differences between public and private law schools yielded no firm answers to the question of whether public schools differ from their private counterparts in any sense relevant to MoneyLaw. I'd like to approach the question from a somewhat different angle. Perhaps the presence of for-profit legal education suggest that the relevant divide is not between public and private status, but between nonprofit and for-profit status.
There is at least one for-profit, fully ABA-accredited law school in the United States: Florida Coastal School of Law. Florida Coastal's mission seems straightforward. Students pay tuition in exchange for training that enables them to pass the bar. In turn, the tuition finances Florida Coastal's operations . . . and in principle allows Florida Coastal's owners to realize a profit if the school operates successfully.
For purposes of drawing meaningful qualitative comparisons among law schools, Michael Froomkin may be correct that bar passage rates are overrated. (I happen to disagree; bar passage rates strike me as a plausible basis on which to compute Reputation Independent Performance Statistics.) But bar passage matters enormously to students. Pass, and you have a license to practice. Fail, and you will have incurred six-digit, undischargeable debt, forgone other opportunities, and added three or even four years in age for nothing. The pursuit of profit strips legal education of every other pretense. This is the irreducible raison d'être of Florida Coastal and every other law school that operates on a for-profit basis.
Michael Froomkin's critique reports bar passage rates in Florida for 2006. Coupled with that report, Stetson University's analysis of 2004's rates and Florida Coastal's review of the 2005 rates confirm some basic facts about the Florida bar exam:
- Florida's overall bar passage rate for first-time candidates appears to hover between 70 and 75 percent.
- First-time bar candidates who attended out-of-state schools pass the bar at a rate that is very close to the overall rate.
- Florida Coastal graduates have done no worse that candidates who attended law schools outside Florida.
What the for-profit model of legal education does suggest is that accountability can be a powerful motivator. If Florida Coastal cannot consistently deliver a significant portion of its graduates into the Florida bar, the school dies. No board of trustees, state legislature, or other public-spirited body will intervene on Florida Coastal's behalf. Unlike its not-for-profit counterparts, Florida Coastal cannot afford more than a year or two of lackluster bar passage rates. So far, the invisible hand of the marketplace has kept Florida Coastal from slipping too far behind its competition. Not-for-profit law schools, whether they operate on a public or a private charter, might learn something from the apparent sustainability of Florida Coastal's business model.