Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Common wealth

Adapted from the August 2007 issue of "Louisville Bar Briefs," the monthly newspaper of the Louisville Bar Association.

DollarsWhy do most students attend law school?

We know the standard answers. Most of us have written them.

To advance justice. To serve the underprivileged. To right wrongs and ensure peace.

Most students, however, are motivated -- at least partially and often substantially -- by something else. They attend law school in order to make more money.

There is nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, I'll go further. Louisville Law depends on its ability to enrich its students in consciously material ways, and on its students' willingness to convert their training into earnings.

The simple economic ambition of our students advances the mission of our Law School in three important ways. First, law schools enhance productivity in all walks of life, including but not limited to dispute resolution through law. Second, the task of enhancing the economic power of our graduates and our community lies at the very core of the University of Louisville's mission as a premier metropolitan research university. Finally, the success of individual graduates enables the Law School to right wrongs, to ensure peace, to serve the underprivileged, and to advance justice -- in the very ways that a market-based economy cannot accomplish on its own.

Our alumnae and alumni typically command higher salaries after graduation. Their enhanced earning power reflects the value that the Law School adds to their professional portfolios. Sophisticated legal knowledge, even if not translated directly into the practice of law, opens doors throughout the world of business. From financial services to logistics, manufacturing, and high tech, every productive endeavor demands organizational acumen. That is the very domain in which law school graduates excel.

Rosie the Riveter
Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter (1943)
Economic advancement through education holds a powerful allure for the traditional constituencies of the University of Louisville. Our Law School specializes in students who have little if any prior exposure to the legal profession. We are a school of first generations and second chances. Higher education paves numerous paths to a better, more prosperous life, particularly in a Commonwealth that remains among the most poorly educated states in the union.

Relative to their counterparts at so-called "elite" universities, many students at the University of Louisville come from a more modest economic background. Louisville Law best serves these students by acknowledging their natural economic ambition and by providing the tools -- classroom instruction, practice-based learning opportunities, academic counseling and career services -- that will put the most lucrative post-graduation opportunities squarely within their reach.

The University of Louisville is one of the true bargains in American legal education. Comparable education experiences can be had elsewhere, but often at several multiples of Louisville's tuition. Some out-of-state students can affirmatively save money by matriculating here, rather than attending a public law school in their home states. Lower tuition means lower debt. It means greater accessibility. It means greater diversity, by every conceivable measure, during law school. It means a wider range of professional choices -- including public sector and public service jobs -- after graduation.

Scholarships, loan forgiveness, and generous public support are all essential elements of higher education in the United States. No other system in the world approaches the success of American universities. But that success, to say nothing of the public-serving goals that universities rightly pursue alongside their often understated mission of enhancing their graduates' earning power, depends on the value that students gain by virtue of attending school.

In due course, universities finance their most ambitious projects through contributions from their most financially successful graduates. Precisely because we serve a public mission and realize relatively little revenue from tuition, our Law School depends on graduates whose success is exceeded solely by their generosity. They do well so that we might do good.

This column therefore serves as an open letter to our graduates, especially those who find themselves in a position to help others in the legal profession who have voluntarily forgone private-sector earnings in order to serve the underprivileged and the public at large. Four lines, cascading downward from four syllables to one, say it all:
  1. Make more money.
  2. Send us some.
  3. Here's why.
  4. Thanks.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who are you kidding? Half of your students won't have a shot at even small firm private practice law jobs. Big law firms and reputable mid size firms only consider maybe 10% of your students. Public interest or the best government jobs are a pipe dream for 98% of your students. You think a single one of your students will have the opportunity to teach law at an ABA-approved school? What about the rest of them? Do you even believe this post yourself?

You and your school are doing no service to first generation and otherwise challenged law students. At best, you are misleading them into overestimating their job prospects; at worst, you are outright scamming them into borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to buy a worthless piece of paper, using false job statistics.

It amazes me that you and other professors can write articles about the worsening state of the legal job market, and yet continue to receive a very handsome salary to teach those people least likely to obtain a legal career. (And before you compare your salary to big firm associates, be honest: you get paid six figures to research incredibly fascinating material and teach a few hours a week.) It's like there's some kind of fundamental disconnect between what profs know the market is like and their actions.

The next big credit bubble will be in student loans. Guaranteed. It's already starting in undergraduate student loans, and will probably filter up to graduate schools. And then, I bet a lot of profs will learn what it is to bill hours.

But really: How do you justify it to yourself? I would honestly like to know. I could understand if your attitude is: "It's a free market. They can go to school or not, their choice." But how does that make you different from a used car salesman selling a lemon?

7/23/2008 2:48 AM  

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