There's a good article today on Law.com concerning the massive debt loads many law students carry. While some big national firms recently increased starting salaries by $10,000, many more firms have held fast. And even for those that did hike salaries, that is the only raise in the last five years.
Now, that in and of itself is not a bad thing--first year lawyers often incur losses for their firms (i.e., cost firms more than they bring in), which suggests they are paid more than they are worth in the short term. And getting an exorbitant salary can be a Faustian bargain, as I discussed in an earlier post on this blog.
But when you compare the lack of recent raises to the increases in tuition levels over recent years, then you have a real problem. With average tuition debt increasing dramatically in the past decade, the pressure to work for the big bucks to pay off loans is even greater. It likely scares some good people away from law school, and it certainly makes lower paying social services jobs less viable for those who do attend.
A recent commentator to some of my posts (on January 5 and January 7) argued vociferously that the solution is to make law school optional--that you should be able to practice law either by passing the bar OR going to law school. Check out those previous posts and comments. I disagree strongly with the notion that law school is not needed--if anything, we should require law school and dispense with the bar exam, which is largely a memorization contest. But that commentator was dead on in saying that high paying law jobs often attract people for the money, when we would be better off as a society if more people went into public service work. I'm not saying that high paying law jobs (or law firms) are bad; I enjoyed my big law firm experience. I am saying, though, that big salaries sometimes lure people who really would be happier doing something else.
Dean Richard Matasar of New York Law School has been saying for several years now that there are probably too many law schools in this country, and that many of them may not survive the next 20 years or so. New law schools are continuing to crop up nationwide anyway, but Matasar might be right. Law schools have large fixed costs if they are going to do their jobs right and give students a proper education--after all, practical courses and large faculties (to improve professor-student ratios) cost money. And if the money doesn't come from endowments or state coffers, then it has to come out of student pockets.
So how do we solve the tuition-debt dilemma? It's something I think about a lot, and there is no easy answer. Do we need to revamp the current system, or is society better served by the existing approach, which enables more people to go to school but makes them pay extravagent amounts for that privilege?