Professor Brian Tamanaha’s book, Failing Law Schools, usefully collects in one place the recent critiques of law schools for reacting excessively to U.S. News rankings, manipulating admissions data, spending excessive amounts of money to hire “star” professors and to circulate glossy brochures and magazines, and in some cases, falsifying graduates’ employment statistics. But Tamanaha’s main argument is that law school has become unaffordable for most applicants, because it will saddle them with debt that they cannot afford to repay on the incomes that they can reasonably expect. His thesis is based on a misunderstanding of student loan repayment methods. In particular, he erroneously assumes that the only proper way to repay student loans is through so-called “standard” repayment (over a ten year period). Actually, many law graduates will find typically law school debt manageable if they repay federal student loans through income-based repayment plans, particularly the new Pay As You Earn (PAYE) plan. Tamanaha disparages income-based repayment, however, because he incorrectly believes that total debt, rather than the ratio of current repayment obligations to current income, primarily determines a borrower’s credit-worthiness for mortgages and other large loans.
Based on his belief that law school is no longer affordable for most students, Tamanaha offers several radical proposals, such as amending accreditation standards to permit a two-tier system, in which only a few expensive law schools would continue as research institutions offering three-year degrees, while most would offer law degrees after two years of classroom study and a year of some sort of lightly-supervised apprenticeship. He would also do away with the standard that requires schools to put most faculty members on tenure tracks and to support faculty research. This review essay questions the need for those far-reaching changes in legal education and concludes with the suggestion that Tamanaha focus his considerable critical skills on the problems not of law students, but of lower-income clients who are unable to obtain the legal services that they need.