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Time to Reform Law School Tuition?

The law school curriculum has drawn much attention lately, with last week's Carnegie Foundation report condemning schools for failing to teach future lawyers practical skills and Harvard's recent decision to change its first-year courses. But what of law school tuitions? Should law schools rethink their tuition formulas in order to provide future lawyers more flexibility in their choice of career?

Frankly, I was shocked to read in today's New York Law Journal that a New York law firm will pay first-year associates $160,000 -- before bonus. We've seen this scramble before; once one elite firm raises the bar, the others quickly follow. Meanwhile, first-year lawyers earn $43,300 to $46,300 in government employment and $36,000 in legal services, as the National Association for Law Placement reported in September. Let's face facts: Many lawyers will never in their entire careers see an annual paycheck of $160,000.

But while there is a six-figure gulf between high- and low-end starting salaries, new lawyers all start their careers with the same tuition bill. According to the American Bar Association, many law students graduate with debt of $80,000 or more. Paying that off requires writing monthly checks of $900 for at least a decade. That is $10,800 a year. Try to budget that with an annual salary of $36,000.

Some states and law schools have sought to address this problem by creating loan repayment assistance programs. But a 2003 ABA report, Lifting the Burden: Law Student Debt as a Barrier to Public Service, concluded that the number of these programs is small and their resources are limited.

All of which suggests that law schools should be examining their tuition structures as closely as they are their curricula. Here is one modest proposal to start: Create a sliding scale that adjusts students' final tuition bill up or down based on their first-year salaries out of law school. That first-year associate with the paycheck of $160,000 plus bonus would end up owing more to his or her alma mater, while the lawyer who chooses public service would receive a nice little refund check. Preposterous? No more so than paying a newly minted lawyer $160,000.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 23, 2007 at 06:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)


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