Priced Out Of A Law School Education
By Sherwood Ross
That low-, middle-income, and minority students are being priced out of the legal profession because they can't afford law school is probably something most people haven't thought about, yet it has far-reaching implications for the future of America.
The result is minorities have fewer opportunities for good-paying jobs in the courts and Corporate America, widening the earnings gap between the races. It means fewer member of Congress hail from working-class backgrounds, so tax laws get written to benefit the wealthy.
All college costs are rising rapidly but law schools stand out. Law school tuition is often $30,000 a year or more, explained in part by costly expenditures mandated on law schools by the American Bar Association(ABA).
"Demanding extravagant wages, working conditions, and lifestyles for law professors, and demanding plush facilities and libraries, the ABA standards required enormous financial resources," author Debbie Hagan charges in her book "Against The Tide" (University Press of America).
This drives up costs and tuitions "dramatically" and excludes "the working class, minorities, and (individuals making) midlife career changes," Hagan writes. She points out the ABA standards also work to thwart innovative law schools which strive "to keep costs and tuitions low."
Hagan writes, ABA standards regulate everything from how many hours' law school professors may teach to their pay, sabbaticals and faculty numbers, building and classroom size, entrance examinations, and even the number of books in the library.
Pointing out how great power is concentrated in the hands of the nation's 1-million lawyers, Hagan says lawyers make up 53 percent of U.S. senators, 37 percent of congressmen, 46 percent of state governors, and 17 percent of state legislators. Except for a few traffic court magistrates, all judges are lawyers.
Last year, the report of the ABA's own Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession found minorities woefully under-represented in the legal profession. According to the report's author Elizabeth Chambliss, a New York Law School professor:
"The legal profession already is one of the least racially integrated professions in the United States when all four minority groups (African-American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American) are aggregated," Chambliss said. "African-Americans, too, are represented at lower levels than in many comparable professions."
She said in 2000 African-Americans made up only 3.9 percent of all lawyers, compared with 4.4 percent of physicians, 5.6 percent of college and university professors, 7.8 percent of computer scientists and 7.9 percent of accountants and auditors.
Chambliss cited "the heavy reliance" of law schools on the Law School Admissions Test(LSAT) as "one of the main barriers to increasing diversity among law students." She noted, "African Americans and other minority groups score lower, on average, than Whites, on the LSAT, yet law schools' reliance on this measure of aptitude has increased markedly over time."
By contrast, an innovative school such as the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover admits students based on their educational transcripts and academic achievements, not LSAT aptitude scores. It also interviews each applicant personally, focusing on why the individual want to become a lawyer.
As author Hagan points out, if there were more affordable law schools around the country such as MSL, "this would adversely affect many high-cost law schools, make them look bad, and might even run a few out of business. It could also result in more competition in the legal profession, possibly driving down fees."
Dean Lawrence Velvel, cofounder of MSL, said MSL's task is to offer quality, practical legal education "to competent, hard-working people who had been excluded from many of the benefits of American life." MSL tuition is $13,300 a year.
On June 27, 1995, the Department of Justice(DOJ) filed a complaint formally charging ABA with fixing professors' salaries and other violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. It charged ABA with furthering "the self-interest of professors instead of improving education," Hagan said. That suit was inspired by an MSL case against ABA.
Although ABA agreed to a DOJ consent decree at the time, Hagan said this did not put an end to ABA's restrictive practices. "Even after the consent decree, the ABA continued to require schools to hire huge, expensive full-time faculties who had light teaching loads, to build expensive buildings costing millions of dollars, to have a huge and expensive hard copy library even though legal materials are available on-line, and to demand high LSAT scores from applicants." Hagan reflected, "The decree did nothing to open law schools to persons who had been unfairly excluded." The struggle to level the academic playing field in the legal profession goes on.
(Sherwood Ross is a newspaper columnist who also serves as a media consultant to the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. Reach him at sherwoodr1@ yahoo.com )