Should Law Schools Pay Some Students to Drop Out?

Should Law Schools Pay Some Students to Drop Out?
Should Law Schools Pay Some Students to Drop Out?

Should law school students be eligible for tuition refunds if they decide they'd rather not accumulate six-figures in debt studying for a career in which job prospects are dismal? That's what two Yale University professors recently argued in Slate. The National Association of Law Schools, not surprisingly, rejected the idea.

"The hypothetical was an absurd one," said Michael A. Olivas, the association's president, adding that he is not aware of any law students who have actually made such a request. "We have never guaranteed that our graduates will have jobs."

Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston, makes a persuasive case that letting law school students escape their debts is a bad idea. After all, he notes that people have to pay off their car loans even if they grow tired of their vehicles.

An Idea Borrowed From Zappos

In their article, Akhil Reed Amar and Ian Ayres argue that the problems facing young lawyers are a matter of excessive supply and weak demand. The way to rectify the situation, they suggest, is to "rebate half of a student's first-year tuition if the student opts to quit school at the end of the first year."

It's an idea they are borrowing from Internet shoe retailer Zappos, which famously offers new employees who complete its training course $4,000 to quit.

The proposal, though, makes no sense economically. The aggrieved law student would still owe tens of thousands of dollars in tuition under the Amat and Ayres plan. Most people who hate law school that much would figure that they might as well stick it out and gamble that their degree would enable them to land a better-paying job than they would have otherwise.

Paying people to quit law school is not a new idea. An anonymous Boston College law student made headlines last year when his "open letter" to the school's interim dean offering to quit in exchange for a refund made headlines. And there have been at least two lawsuits seeking class action status alleging that law schools misled students about the employment rates of their graduates.

Yet Another Blow to Lawyers' Reputations

The negative publicity surrounding debt-ridden law students and their poor employment prospects is already having an effect on law schools.

According to the Law School Admissions Council, or LSAC, which oversees the law school entrance exam, 16.9% fewer LSATs were administered in October's test-taking period, and 18.7% fewer tests were taken during the June period. This represents a reversal from the 2009-2010 school year, when the number of tests administered spiked 13% during the height of the economic slowdown.

"The word is getting around about the job market," says Wendy Margolis, a spokeswoman for the LSAC, in an interview.

For his part, Olivas said he wasn't concerned by the LSAT statistics, noting that "most law schools in major metropolitan areas continue to have gravity-defying levels of students and record numbers of applicants."

Though there may be surpluses of lawyers in parts of the country, some areas don't have enough of them. "There are counties in the state of Texas that have fewer than a dozen lawyers in them," Olivas said.

According to the American Bar Association, more than 44,000 law degrees were awarded during the last school year, the most since statistics were kept in the early 1960s. These statistics also reflect that about a dozen or so new law schools have opened up shop over the past few years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that lawyers held 759,000 jobs in the U.S. in 2008.

Motley Fool contributor Jonathan Berr managed to avoid the temptation of law school and has no regrets.