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Friday, May 02, 2008

1L Attrition and Law School Tuition Structures

Some pretty interesting stats on 1L attrition here.  Michael Froomkin has some insights on the phenomenon here.  (Hat tip to Leiter for this topic)

As the stats show, there is great variation in 1L attrition rates, ranging from 51.4% at Whittier down to 0% for a number of schools.  Eyeballing the list, it looks like there's reasonably strong correlation with US News rankings (do they account for attrition?), at least by tiers.  I suspect it also correlates well with average post-graduation salaries (also not an exogenous factor in rankings).

But all that said, I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about 1L attrition?  Is there too much?  Or is there too little?  Not all attrition is the same, of course.  Some is for financial or family reasons.  Some is from flunking out.  Some is because the student realized that law school wasn't the right thing for her or him.   Etc.  We can't treat all of these the same. 

But let me be provocative and focus on just one type of student--the student who drops out because he or she realizes that law school isn't the right educational path. I think we don't see nearly enough of this. I know far too many friends and classmates and now, I fear, students, who are slogging their way through law school even though they don't want to be lawyers or do anything else that really requires a law degree. If someone realizes that law is not for them as a 1L, should they really force themselves through the next two years of law school? (I recognize that many people hate law school, but like practicing and vice-versa and that law profs may be overrepresented in the later group. Consider medical schools--I haven't been able to find first year attrition rate stats, but only around 80% of students graduate in 4 years (some of this is because of MD/PhDs or other joint degrees).  But very little is because of academic attrition. 

For a lot of people who realize that they really want to be doctors or poets or musicians or anything but a lawyer, the finances of legal education lock them in. This is a shame and it need not be. As a social matter, I'd rather have more happy artists and engineers and scientists than unhappy lawyers.

Tuition forgiveness programs at some schools help with this, especially for students who pursue low-earning jobs. But that might not be enough. We still have lots of unhappy law students who are unhappy because they should not be law students.

Let me toss out an idea for how to address this: we could backload the cost of law school so that students can test the waters with less financial commitment. This could be done by lowering 1L tuition and increasing 2L and 3L tuition or by charging a separate special degree fee.

There are plenty of problems with such a pricing structure. One doesn't need to have a law degree to sit for the bar in every jurisdiction, but excluding CA and a few other states, this isn't an issue, and most law schools supply local markets. Moreover, if only some schools did this, there would be a strong financial incentive to transfer after the cheap 1L year to a school with traditional flat-line pricing for cheaper 2L and 3L years. Irrespective, of the prisoner's dilemma thus created, a shift in tuition structure could reduce the number of 2Ls and 3Ls, which would hurt law school revenue. But it might increase the number of 1Ls; if a school got the numbers right, this could be revenue neutral.

The point is not that changing tuition structure is the perfect solution. But it really behooves law schools to think about the students who should not be in law school; graduation should not always be the goal toward which we push our students. I can't tell a student if she should be a scientist or a lawyer. But I don't want to push her to be a lawyer once she realizes she doesn't really want to be one.

Posted by Adam Levitin on May 2, 2008 at 08:56 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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How about an opt-out degree/certificate/something for the end of the first year? I probably would have bailed then if it didn't mean I would have to go home with nothing to show for my year and my $30,000. Now I'll soon have a JD (but not a will to practice law) to show for my 3 years and $90,000. It's my mistake, sure, and who can say what the future has to offer? But I think you're on to something. A tougher grading scale might make things even more arduous, but it would have culled people like me, likely to my long-term benefit, embarrassing as it would have been.

"I can't tell a student if she should be a scientist or a lawyer."

I wish you would. Or I wish someone would have told me or at least challenged me. But law schools are first and foremost a tuition collection agency, and scaring off potential students, even potentially unsuccessful students, is not in the interest of admissions or administration. They need fee-paying curve cushions, a bottom quarter that doesn't grumble about grades even if the reason is that they have larger, existential grumbles.

Sorry for the ramble.

Posted by: top 20 3L | May 3, 2008 1:19:33 AM

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