Young Lawyers Division Newsletter
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Young Lawyers Division

April 2017, vol. 61, no. 5

Is there a ‘crisis’ of law schools in America?


We’ve heard, generally, in the hallways of our courthouses, at bar or alumni association meetings or casually among lawyers at lunch, that law schools today are in trouble. It has been mentioned so often and so casually that it has become a “given.” This article asks whether there is a true crisis of law schools in America and, if so, to what degree and why.

Much of this article relies upon an article by Paul Campos, of the University of Colorado, for facts, insight and perspectives.1 He states, succinctly:

The ongoing contraction in the employment market for new lawyers has combined with the continuing increase in the cost of legal education to produce what many now recognize as a genuine crisis for both law schools and the legal profession.

Also, please be aware that this article is written by someone with a modicum of involvement and experience with this issue. The author is a 17-year board trustee of the John Marshall Law School, the last ten as its President. John Marshall is one of only approximately six totally independent, stand-alone law schools of the approximate 226 or so law schools in America.

Diminishing enrollments

In a study by Robert Zemsky, Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, mapping a contracting market, the author analyzed 171 law schools and found that enrollment dropped by 21% at private law schools between 2011 and 2015. At public law schools, enrollment dropped by 18%. In the academic year 2009-2010, total law school enrollment at the 206 or so ABA accredited law schools was 154,549. 44,004 JDs and LLBs were awarded. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of applicants to ABA accredited schools fell from 87,900 to approximately 66,500. Of course, the reasons for such significant declines in the applicant pool are consumer generated, i.e. the high cost of a legal education and the diminishing job market for new lawyers.


Since approximately 1985, tuition in private law schools has increased by 161.5%, in real inflation adjusted terms, and resident tuition has increased by 396.8% for public law schools.

Here are some examples: The cost of attending the University of Illinois Law School increased from about $7,000 annually to about $45,000 during this period. Texas increased from about $5,000 to about $28,000. Minnesota increased from about $12,000 annually to about $35,000. Looking at it in a different statistical way, at John Marshall, the increase was from $220 per credit hour in 1985 to $1,540 per credit hour presently.

Professor Campos indicates, in his treatise, that the estimated total cost of attendance for most law schools is now more than $150,000, and tops $200,000 at many schools. That cost is barely manageable. For example, my present law clerk owes $250,000 for her combined college and law school education. In choosing the two annually awarded $10,000 John Marshall scholarship recipients (given to 2L students) of the Lupel & Amari scholarships, most of the applicants owe upwards of $80,000 – and these are second year/third semester students.

Thus the perception of high costs for a law school education is accurate. Coupled with a terrible employment market, there is a crisis. The crisis has been a hot topic in legal publications and the news media.2 Why has law school become so expensive? The following are the generally accepted reasons:

• Declines in student-faculty ratios – demanded by the ABA in its accreditation process, now dictated to be 20 to 1 or less, student to teacher;

• inflationary and rising costs of faculty, and especially tenured faculty;

• the creation and cost of clinics in the legal education process;

• the expansion and rising costs of competent and experienced administrative personnel;

• advances and high cost of 21st century technology; and

• experienced administrative professionals and expensive capital construction projects.

As for this declining faculty-student ratios, John Marshall is a good example. In the later 1960s/early 1970s, the faculty consisted of prominent and respected Chicago practitioners, leaders in their fields of tort, labor, immigration, IP and the rest. For the most part, they were adjunct. And those wishing to teach in a Chicago law school were many. I was an adjunct at my alma mater from 1968 to 1974, paid about $1,500 per course, and with no other benefits. Many practitioners call me today about adjunct faculty opportunities at John Marshall. There is no shortage of competent attorneys who are anxious to teach a class or two as a complement to their practice.

When I became a trustee at John Marshall, in 2000, enrollments and applications were the highest ever and the school had to comply with the ABA ratio demand of 20 to 1 student to faculty. In a few years, the school finally reached that ratio. Of course, over the next ten years, many, probably most, of these new “ratioed” teachers became tenured, fixing higher teacher costs well into the future. We probably all know what job security and other tenure benefits are involved with being tenured.

Before the bubble “burst,” and to accommodate the increasing number of students, and to be competitive in order to attract them, schools had to increase their facilities, not only larger but also better. In addition, schools offered much greater scholarship opportunities. All of this at substantial cost. In addition, there was the cost of improving and expanding the schools’ IT capabilities, with attendant equipment, software and on-premises IT professionals.

Starting in 2000, to satisfy these higher enrollment opportunity demands, John Marshall invested more than 150 million dollars in capital improvements. On campus students totaled almost 1,800, the 14th largest law school in the country. The school created a state of the art facility, occupying almost a full block of lien-free real estate in downtown Chicago. The facilities and location compared favorably with any of the other eight law schools in Illinois.

Diminishing employment opportunities

Lawrence E. Mitchell, the Dean of Case Western Reserve’s Law School, observed about the job market for new lawyers: “it’s bad.” “Bad” means that most students will have trouble finding a first job, especially in law firms. Historically, until the beginning of the crisis, about 80% of law graduates found employment as a lawyer within nine months of graduation. Dean Mitchell points out that, in 1998, 55% of law graduates started a job in law. He says that, in 2011, that number was 50% and it has been a weak market ever since. Professor Campos argues in his treatise that the more realistic figure for 2011 is 40%. And he points out that 26% of all jobs taken by these graduates (including non-legal jobs) were temporary positions.


Consider the quote from Professor Campos again:

The ongoing contraction in the employment market for new lawyers has combined with the continuing increase in the cost of legal education to produce what many now recognize as a genuine crisis for both law schools and the legal profession.

So yes, these are difficult times for American law schools. Is it a crisis? It depends on how draconian one defines crisis. Are there countermeasures? John Marshall, with its great board (with all due modesty), made up for the most part of alumni who are practicing lawyers and judges, downsized and righted its ship. It got lean and mean. Since 2007, John Marshall has decreased from a 1,700+ student body to just over 900. It bought out, at considerable cost, many of its tenured faculty, mostly older teachers. It leased out much of its now unnecessary space and examined its budget, eliminating as much fat and surplus as possible. Keep in mind that John Marshall is a totally tuition driven institution. Its annual budget is zero-sum (even with a little surplus), having no debt, almost a full block of lien-free downtown Chicago real estate, state of the art facilities, an energetic administration and faculty, and a recently hired dynamic new dean, Darby Dickerson. She understands what the realities are in law school education today.

Some law schools are closing; some are at risk of losing accreditation; and there are some who are merging. It will be interesting to follow these developments in the years ahead.


[The author wishes to thank Anthony Pontillo, 2L at John Marshall, for his research assistance in the production of this article.]

1. The Crisis of the American Law School, Paul Campos, University of Colorado.

2. For example, see: “Is Law School a Losing Game?” New York Times, January 8, 2011; “Law School Loses its Allure, Jobs at Firms are Scarce” Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2011; “Even lawyers Struggle to Find Jobs These Days” CBS Evening News, March 8, 2012.

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of the ISBA's Senior Lawyers newsletter.