Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!
By DAVID SEGAL
Published: July 16, 2011
WITH apologies to show business, there’s no business like the business of law school.
Peter and Maria Hoey
Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times
The basic rules of a market economy — even golden oldies, like a link between supply and demand — just don’t apply.
Legal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.
It is one of the academy’s open secrets: law schools toss off so much cash they are sometimes required to hand over as much as 30 percent of their revenue to universities, to subsidize less profitable fields.
In short, law schools have the power to raise prices and expand in ways that would make any company drool. And when a business has that power, it is apparently difficult to resist.
How difficult? For a sense, take a look at the strange case of New York Law School and its dean, Richard A. Matasar. For more than a decade, Mr. Matasar has been one of the legal academy’s most dogged and scolding critics, and he has repeatedly urged professors and fellow deans to rethink the basics of the law school business model and put the interests of students first.
“What I’ve said to people in giving talks like this in the past is, we should be ashamed of ourselves,” Mr. Matasar said at a 2009 meeting of the Association of American Law Schools. He ended with a challenge: If a law school can’t help its students achieve their goals, “we should shut the damn place down.”
Given his scathing critiques, you might expect that during Mr. Matasar’s 11 years as dean, he has reshaped New York Law School to conform with his reformist agenda. But he hasn’t. Instead, the school seems to be benefitting from many of legal education’s assorted perversities.
N.Y.L.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country, but with tuition and fees now set at $47,800 a year, it charges more than Harvard. It increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded. It reported in the most recent US News & World Report rankings that the median starting salary of its graduates was the same as for those of the best schools in the nation — even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount.
Mr. Matasar declined to be interviewed for this article, though he agreed to answer questions e-mailed through a public relations representative.
Asked if there was a contradiction between his stand against expanding class sizes and the growth of the student population at N.Y.L.S., Mr. Matasar wrote: “The answer is that we exist in a market. When there is demand for education, we, like other law schools, respond.”
This is a story about the law school market, a singular creature of American capitalism, one that is so durable it seems utterly impervious to change. Why? The career of Richard Matasar offers some answers. His long-time and seemingly sincere ambition is to “radically disrupt our traditional approach to legal education,” as it says on his N.Y.L.S. Web page. But even he, it seems, is engaged in the same competition for dollars and students that consumes just about everyone with a financial and reputational stake in this business.
“The broken economic model Matasar describes appears to be his own template,” wrote Brian Z. Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University Law School in St. Louis, in a blog posting about Mr. Matasar last year. “Are his increasingly vocal criticisms of legal academia an unspoken mea culpa?”
A PRIVATE, stand-alone institution located in the TriBeCa neighborhood of downtown Manhattan, New York Law School was founded in 1891 and counts Justice John Marshall Harlan among its most famous graduates. The school — which is not to be confused with New York University School of Law — is housed in a gleaming new 235,000-square-foot building at the corner of West Broadway and Leonard Street.
That building puts N.Y.L.S. in the middle of a nationwide trend: the law school construction boom. As other industries close offices and downsize plants, the manufacturing base behind the doctor of jurisprudence keeps growing. Fordham Law School in New York recently broke ground on a $250 million, 22-story building. The University of Baltimore School of Law and the University of Michigan Law School are both working on buildings that cost more that $100 million. Marquette University Law School in Wisconsin has just finished its own $85 million project. A bunch of other schools have built multimillion dollar additions.