May 20, 2010
A Modest Proposal: Free First Year of Law School
Posted by Christine Hurt

We have all had conversations with students who are unhappy in law school or have come to suspect that they won't like practicing law.  These are hard conversations.  We aren't encouraging a child to stick with piano lessons or the track team; we are helping students decide whether to continue to make a large investment in a professional degree.  Although we always say that there are so many things one can do wiith a law degree, the one thing most people think of is practicing law.  And many of the things one can do with a law degree don't require one.

However, when I talk to the rare student considering dropping out, the student usually mentions the amount of debt already incurred.  Sometimes these are students unhappy with their grades or who fear their aptitude is not mapping on to the practice of law.  Other students just don't like the study of law and fear that they won't like the practice of law.  But students are loath to change courses because of the money already invested.  Yes, I understand the concept of "sunk costs," but I also understand option theory.  Yes, we may say that a student should walk away from a $30,000 mistake instead of throwing good money after bad and turning it into a $90,000 mistake.  Particularly in a bad job market, where high-income producing jobs are getting fewer and fewer, we might advise the student to cut their losses.  But the other side of the coin is that a student might think that paying $30,000 for nothing is worse than paying $90,000 for something.  A law degree is worth something, and it might all work out in the end.

Now, having students stay in law school who either don't enjoy the study/practice of law or who may not be well-suited to it cannot be a good thing for either the student or the institution (never mind the loss to the profession the student might be perfect for).  So, here's my proposal:  free first year of law school.  Here's how it would work:

If Progressive Law School costs $30,000 a year today, then starting next year, the first year is free, and the second year is $45,000 and the third year is $45,000.  Students are admitted the same way, only tuition is deferred until a student registers for the second year of law school.  If after the first year a student thinks this is not for her, then the student walks away with only the lost opportunity cost of nine months.  I think few students would choose this option.  Most students like law school or at least like it enough for the benefits of a law degree, which they plan to use.  There's not a lot of career advantage to having one year of legal study, so few would game the system just to get nine months of fun common law courses!  Admissions would still be competitive, so it probably wouldn't work out that students came just for fun.

What's in it for the law school?  First, it would give them a comparative advantage over their peer schools because they are offering applicants a hedge.  Second, it would probably end up increasing alumni morale and also placement statistics.  I was bouncing this idea around to a colleague who suggested that the second and third years could also be increased over $45,000 to subsidize those who took the option, but I still think the number would be small enough that this might be unnecessary (or require a very small increase).

I'm sure there are complications, particularly with student loans.  If you don't take out a student loan for first-year tuition, you might not get a student loan for living expenses, for example.  This could be worked out somehow -- perhaps students borrow the first year tuition, then receive a loan forgiveness from the school if they choose the option or some other work-around.  In a world where students have to self-finance the living costs of the first year, that might be better along many fronts (they would in fact be purchasing the option, creating a disincentive to game the system), but probably unworkable.

Another alternative would be to keep law school tuition on the same schedule, but allow students to exit after the first year with a terminal master's degree.  This would address the problem of students having to stay in law school who are unhappy, but it would probably result in greater numbers of exiting students.  This would require restructuring of the law school admissions process, if the first year shrank by a certain percentage each year. 

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