Law professor’s study suggests cost of law school not worth it

If you frequent our blog or our Twitter feed, you’ll notice we seem to post a lot about the diminishing value of a legal education. It’s not just a Michigan thing, but it’s certainly a big deal within the legal community. Last week we posted a web poll on our home page asking readers if they would recommend a recent college grad even try going to law school. A considerable majority of you are saying “No.”

Yesterday, Douglas Levy wrote of two Yale law professors putting forth the idea of offering students a one-half rebate on first year tuition if they choose to leave law school.

A Vanderbilt law professor studied the value of a law degree and found that such an offer might be a sucker bet: the student should probably take the money.

In his law journal article “Mama’s 2011, Is a Law Degree a Good Investment Today?”, professor Herwig Schlunk weighed the earning power of three hypothetical law school candidates and the cost of going to an appropriate level law school along with the percentage chance they’ll land a job with a big firm.

He found that the low man, the hypothetical Also Ran, who graduated from a middle-of-the-road college with a non-marketable major (I’m thinking English) and will attend a Tier III law school would actually outpace Ms. Hot Prospect, graduate of a highly ranked college with a marketable major and will attend a top tier law school. Of course, this is based more on the difference between tuition costs between the two potential law schools versus the smaller disparity between the lost chance of income if they would have just found jobs within their major.

Sounds complicated? ABA Journal has more.


One thought on “Law professor’s study suggests cost of law school not worth it

  1. What’s Missing from the Debate Over the Value of a Law Degree

    Brian Fraser’s November 22, 2011 post about a Vanderbilt tax professor’s recent article accurately summarized one academician’s theoretical study of the value of a law degree to three hypothetical graduates. But that study, like much that has been written in the New York Times and elsewhere, doesn’t talk about several issues that are important to a balanced analysis in this important debate.

    The Impact of Scholarships on the Cost of Legal Education

    The Vanderbilt study assumed that “none of the three individuals receives scholarship aid to offset tuition” even though scholarship aid is pervasive in an increasingly competitive law school market.

    For example, at my school, an applicant who scores 149 on the LSAT, which is slightly below the national average, receives a 25% tuition scholarship (35% if he or she is a Michigan or Florida resident) that is guaranteed for all three years so long as the student maintains a 2.00 GPA or better. At 153, this scholarship increases to 50% (or 60% for Michigan or Florida residents), at 158 it increases to 75% (or 85%), and at 163 it increases to 100%.

    In combination with our tuition rate, which is already substantially below the national median for private schools, this led National Jurist magazine to rank Cooley Law School first in the nation in its scholarship-to-tuition ratio. See

    As the Vanderbilt professor admits, “Obviously, such aid . . . will dramatically affect the calculations.”

    The Impact of Employment During Law School

    The Vanderbilt study also assumed that the three theoretical students attended law school full-time and did not work during the traditional academic year, even though schools like Cooley, with flexible part-time scheduling options, can provide students with the opportunity to attend part-time, work part-time or full-time, and still graduate within three years. In addition to scholarship aid, this can further reduce the cost of a legal education.

    The Vanderbilt study thus assumed that the three theoretical students lost between $87,000 and $120,000 over their three-years of law school in foregone income from the jobs they could have worked. But much of this loss can be offset by employment during law school, if the school and its faculty and staff are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make law school accessible for non-traditional students.

    At a recent graduation reception, the father of one of my graduating students introduced himself to me, shook my hand, and thanked me for the opportunity we gave his daughter, and he proudly added that she worked two jobs throughout law school and was graduating with zero debt. While this example is atypical, it makes the point.

    The Failure to Take the Longer View

    The Vanderbilt study also assumed that the three theoretical graduates would only use their law degree for a 35-year career, retiring at approximately age 60. That assumption has no basis in the reality of today’s older lawyers extending their careers; nor does it take into account the medical advances that will occur over the next 35 years that will extend the productive professional lives of lawyers well into their seventies.

    This flaw means that in addition to significantly over-estimating the cost of a legal education by failing to take scholarships and employment during law school into account, the future income analysis of the Vanderbilt study significantly under-estimated the future earnings of its three theoretical graduates by at least ten years of earnings, at the end of their careers when their earning power would be much greater than during their first years out of law school.

    The Failure to Compare the Value of a Law Degree to the Value of a Career in Less Economically Rewarding Fields

    Professor E. Christopher Johnson, Jr. and I recently published an article titled “The Door to Law School” in the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth Law Review (6 U. Mass. Roundtable Symp. L.J. 1 (2011)) that was focused on the disparities that currently exist in access to law school for students of color. One of the things we studied was the lost opportunity costs for law school applicants of color who are denied admission to law school and end up working in less financially rewarding fields.

    Using official Department of Labor statistics, we compared the lifetime earnings of lawyers to the lifetime earnings of six representative alternate careers and found that the lost opportunity costs for students pursuing those alternate careers ranged from $1.6 million to $2.9 million over the course of a 40-year career, when compared to what they could have earned as lawyers. Even if these estimates are off by 50% (which we do not believe they are), a law degree remains a solid financial investment when compared to the alternatives.

    Other Missing Considerations

    The current debate over the value of a law degree also fails to adequately consider other factors that should be part of a balanced debate over this issue. Among the more important ones are:

    • the impact of the inexorable graying of the “boomer” generation of lawyers and the employment opportunities that will create for recent graduates;

    • the harm that the current unbalanced debate will have on our efforts to diversify the legal profession, as students of color avoid law school because of the absence of balanced information; and

    • the benefits to the consumers of legal services, especially underserved low-income consumers, who are benefiting from the increasing pro bono service that new lawyers are doing to gain experience and “play their way” into a paid position.

    Michigan Lawyers Weekly could do a great service by publishing information about these issues and the benefits of a legal education so that aspiring law students can make fully-informed and reasoned choices about their future careers.


    John Nussbaumer
    Professor and Associate Dean
    Thomas M. Cooley Law School
    Auburn Hills Campus

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