Future generations will look back at the first decade of the twenty-first century as a pivotal time when a huge economic barrier was erected to encumber the path to a legal career. The symbolic announcement of this barrier rang out when annual tuition crossed the $50,000 threshold, now exceeded at a dozen or so law schools. Including fees and living expenses, it costs well in excess of $200,000 to obtain a law degree at most of the nation’s highly regarded law schools and at a number of non-elite ones as well. Law schools thus impose a formidable entry fee on anyone who wishes to follow what, until recently, has long served as a means of upward mobility and access to power in American society.
The pricing structure of legal education has profound class implications. High tuition will inhibit people from middle-class and poor families more than it will deter the offspring of the rich with ample resources. Law school scholarship policies, for reasons I will explain, in effect channel students with financial means to higher ranked law schools, reaping better opportunities, while sending students without money to lower law schools. A growing proportion of elite legal positions will be held by people from wealthy backgrounds as a result. For students who rely on borrowing to finance their legal education, the heavy debt they carry will dictate the types of jobs they seek and constrain the career they go on to have.
Liberal law professors often express concerns about class in American society — championing access to the legal profession and the provision of legal services for underserved communities. Yet as law school tuition rose to its current extraordinary heights, progressive law professors did nothing to resist it. This Article explores what happened and why.
This is offered in the spirit of critical legal studies — as a critical self-examination of the failure of leftist law professors. The Crits were highly critical of complacent liberal academics of their day, arguing that they had a hand in perpetuating an unjust legal system; here I charge liberal legal academia — including the Crits — with perpetuating the profoundly warped and harmful economics of legal education. What follows will offend many of my fellow liberals. It may even lose me some friends. Liberal law professors must see past their anger to reflect on whether there is a core truth to my arguments, to take personal responsibility for what has happened, and to engage in collective action to do something to alter the economics of our operation. If not, the current economic barrier to a legal career may become permanent.