How To Save The Legal Job Market

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We have already discussed how poorly graduating law students have been performing when they take the bar exam, and how those that do manage to pass still have trouble finding legal jobs. We’ve examined how these graduates are left with crushing debt, with nothing to show for it but a useless diploma. Now the issue of law student debt has become so drastic that it has warranted a lead editorial from the staff of the New York Times. In their piece, the blame for the sorry state of the legal education system lies squarely on the shoulders of the law schools themselves.

Using Florida Coastal School of Law as an example (a for-profit institution in Jacksonville), the New York Times Editorial Board lays out the problem quite plainly. Of the 484 students in the graduating class of 2014, 93% left the school in debt, having taken out loans to pay their tuition. The average amount owed by these graduates: $162,785.

And yet, Florida Coastal continues to accept students who don’t seem to be cut out for the legal profession. According to The Atlantic, based on the median LSAT scores of the school’s 2013 incoming class (in the bottom 25th percentile nationwide), “more than half the students were unlikely to ever pass the bar.”

Florida Coastal is packing its classrooms with students and charging them $45,000 a year for a very long shot at a legal job. And whether the money comes from the students’ pockets, or from a federal loan that will likely haunt them for decades, it makes no difference to the school. All they have to do is print degrees.

Can these institutions, especially the for-profit schools, truly be begrudged for operating this way? Ethics aside, it’s just plain good business. Thanks to the extensions Congress made to the Direct PLUS Loan Program in 2006, graduate and professional students are able to take out federal loans to cover their education, from living expenses to tuition, with no limit. The program was intended to provide access to higher education for anyone who wanted it. However, the glaring flaw is that it has incentivized schools like Florida Coastal to jack up their tuition, and fill its classes with as many students as possible, with no reason to care whether or not they do well after graduation.

So logically, the solution is to close this incentive. Policy from the Obama administration, nicknamed the “Gainful Employment Rule” is already trying to combat these predatory institutions by making a school’s eligibility to receive federal student loans dependent on its graduates’ success and ability to pay off their debt. In its current form, however, this rule only applies to for-profit schools. To be truly effective, it needs to target the non-profit institutions as well.

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