On Political Books

March/ April 2013 Bar Examined

The ever-diminishing advantages of a career in the law versus the undiminished enthusiasm of law schools to mint new attorneys.

By Elizabeth Lesly Stevens

Why, I asked Chemerinsky for a Washington Post Magazine story, did he design a new program that was so notably expensive? First, he denied that UC Irvine was more expensive than the University of Southern California or Stanford, which is not true. Then he said that UC Irvine had to charge so much because the school receives no public subsidies or taxpayer support: “If we are not going to be subsidized by the state,” Chemerinsky said, in an oddly high-pitched, singsong voice, as if he were explaining the simplest concept to a child, “and we are going to be a top-quality law school, there is not an alternative in terms of what it is going to cost.”

Chemerinsky’s no-subsidy explanation for why UC Irvine’s program is so expensive is not true either, it turns out. Last fall, the law school and the university refused to answer questions about how much, if anything, UC or any other public entity had spent to get the law school up and running. Repeated Public Records Act requests and months later, long after the Post story was published, I got my answer: as of June of last year, the state had “subsidized” Chemerinsky’s school to the tune of $75 million, and will do so at about $25 million a year going forward.

When I asked Campos last fall about my conversation with Chemerinsky, he was unsurprised. There is no crisis yet in the business of running a law school—there are plenty of students willing to fill those seats, and the federal government will loan them whatever their law school costs. “Here in legal academia,” Campos said, it is “like the French aristocracy in 1785. They have no idea what is going on.” While noting that he admires Chemerinsky as a constitutional scholar, Campos says that it is “impossible” for Chemerinsky to understand or assume any culpability for playing a role in what Campos regards as a crisis. Citing Upton Sinclair, Campos says that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding.”

So with law schools still marketing away to prospective students, insiders like Harper (who teaches as an adjunct at Northwestern University’s law school) and Campos are serving a need as they seek to warn those thinking about a career in law.

In fact, here again Harper finds himself a beneficiary of timing. A whole genre of disillusioned-lawyer/law student/law professor blogs have sprouted up, known generally as “scamblogs.” Campos started a (briefly anonymous) one called “Inside the Law School Scam” in 2011, and in October came out with his new book, Don’t Go to Law School (Unless): A Law Professor’s Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk. And Brian Z. Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University School of Law, made his own big splash with Failing Law Schools last summer.

There will certainly continue to be law schools, and lawyers, and plenty of legal work to be done. Harper and his brethren simply seek to counsel bright young aspiring lawyers to think long and hard before booking impossibly expensive passage on a creaky ship headed toward one nasty-looking reef.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience: Buy from Amazon.com.

Elizabeth Lesly Stevens wrote a weekly column on money and power for the Bay Area section of the New York Times before moving to Washington last fall.


  • ClassLawyer on March 16, 2013 10:29 AM:

    This is a serious issue, however it is a fundamental mistake to lump all law schools and grads together into one big average. For example, an analytical, business-minded person, who knows that they will have to work very hard as a lawyer, probably should take out significant loans to attend a top 25 law school; versus, a recent grad, who just doesn't know what to do with their lives, probably should not take out significant loans to attend a lower tier law school. Just 2 examples. I highly recommend to the vast majority of college-grads who are looking at law school to work as a paralegal for 1-2 years before deciding.

  • Lucas on May 02, 2013 6:53 PM:

    Where on earth did you get your numbers regarding tuition from? The places I look say that UCI School of Law costs a shade over $43,000 -- extremely expensive, to be sure, but not anywhere near the exorbitant number you named. And Chemerinski was actually correct; USC and Stanford do indeed cost more ($50,000 and $49,000, respectively). Your review of Harper's book is generally well-written, but well-intentioned warnings to prospective law school students hardly need this kind of outright lying to be heard.