Saturday, July 6, 2013

Legal academia shakeup

Nearly one year ago, I wrote a blog post titled Law School Management 101 (or how to deal with your school’s looming fiscal crisis).  In it I reminisced how, by the time I graduated in 1999, law school tuition had risen from about $13,000 per year to nearly $20,000 per year.  Sitting there in my cap and gown with tuition payments behind me, I then wondered, “who would want to go to law school at these prices?”  In that post I conceded that my price-sensitive way of thinking back then was at least ten years premature.  Why?  Because between then and now, tuition continued to rise (eventually into the $40,000-plus range at many private schools), yet the number of applicants rose right along with it.  In other words, applicants were willing to pay those prices and a whole lot more.  But as it turns out, I may not have been ten years ahead of my time after all.  Today, the market for legal education has corrected, and some schools are now lowering tuition back to 1999 levels.

Several name-brand, highly-ranked schools have cut tuition, including Arizona and Cincinnati.  But the big mover is Seton Hall, which just cut sticker price from nearly $50,000 per year to $22,300 per year.  (Seton Hall factoids: They are a member of the new Big East, they are the former home of the greatest mind and voice in college basketball, and their law review published my article on prosecutorial misconduct.) 

Kudos to The Hall (although I suspect some of their recent grads could be angry that they paid more than double the new sticker price).  This new $22k price tag brings things back in line with 1999 tuition levels.  And when a school lowers its annual tuition revenue—an inevitability for many schools—“it also has to cut operating costs (its expenses).”  Seton Hall has done that with a ten percent pay cut for all faculty, and looming termination of non-tenured faculty members.  (For more cost-cutting tips, Seton Hall, see my earlier post.)  Other law schools are also cutting costs due to declining enrollments.  

Mass unemployment and falling wages (for those lucky enough to get law jobs in the first place) have already hit new grads and practicing lawyers hard.  Now it all seems to be working its way upward to the law profs in “the academy.”  I suspect that all of this must be unfathomable to those law profs that have collected annual salaries and bonuses in the several hundred thousand dollar range, essentially for teaching one to two classes per semester and writing one law review article per year.  (For those who don't know, even two law review articles per year could be written as a weekend hobby.)  

But this could be the new, permanent reality.  Students are no longer willing (at least not to the same extent) to fund professorial lavishness by going deep into debt via student loans.  And if the students do eventually come back in pre-law school recession numbers, they'll be paying a helluva lot less than they were before.

Hopefully these high-end profs have saved some of their former, NBA-like salaries for the coming rainy days in legal academia.

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