As many as 10 new law schools are in the works, with the majority of them proposed in the eastern part of the country.
While their proponents insist that the schools will serve the needs of their communities and beyond, the plans are drawing sharp criticism from those who argue that creating more law schools is irresponsible.
With three new law schools proposed in New York alone and others also in the early stages in Connecticut, Maine, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, developing facilities to pump out juris doctor degrees is the goal du jour for institutions looking to build a bigger name for themselves.
Planners assert that their schools will offer specialized programs and innovative curricula to J.D. hopefuls. Critics, however, point to a tight job market and starting salaries that do not cover the ballooning costs of tuition for the majority of students already graduating from the nation's hundreds of law schools.
"I have no doubt that those concerns are valid, but it's whether they end up being compelling reasons to pull back on starting a law school," said Loren D. "Chip" Prescott Jr. He is the newly appointed dean of the Wilkes University Law School Planning Initiative, which is pushing to open a law school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., by 2010.
Wilkes University will be competing with Pennsylvania's other schools, which include Duquesne University School of Law; Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law; University of Pennsylvania Law School; University of Pittsburgh School of Law; Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law; Villanova University School of Law; and Widener University School of Law.
Prescott cited a number of reasons to launch a law school in Pennsylvania. First, the closest law school to the area is a two-hour drive away, he said. Second, he sees a need for creative, hands-on training absent in legal education today. Third, a "brand-new school," he said, can provide such innovation more readily than older schools constricted by outmoded traditions.
"A school starting from scratch can make a unique contribution," he said.
CROWDED IN N.Y.
In New York, 15 law schools already are in operation. As in Pennsylvania, they run the rankings spectrum, from top-tier New York University Law School to Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, ranked in the fourth tier by U.S. News & World Report.
Plans are in motion within the State University of New York system to launch two law schools: one at Stony Brook University on Long Island and another in Binghamton, about 200 miles from New York City. In addition, state lawmakers also have set aside money for a law school upstate in Rochester, which would be affiliated with St. John Fisher College.
Other proposals in the Northeast include a new law school at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and another at Husson College in Bangor, Maine. Elsewhere in the country, Louisiana College in Pineville, La., is set to open a Christian-focused law school, and Lincoln Memorial University is planning a law school in Knoxville, Tenn.
In Boise, Idaho, Concordia University has a law school in the works, and University of Idaho College of Law is expected to open a branch in Boise as well.
Almost all of the new schools will seek accreditation from the American Bar Association (ABA). Nearly all states, with the notable exception of California, require students to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school in order to take the bar exam.
All of those schools are in addition to University of California, Irvine Donald Bren School of Law, expected to open in autumn 2009, and at least seven other law schools that have popped up across the country in the last five years seeking accreditation by the ABA.
"This is beyond absurd," said William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University School of Law -- Bloomington. His scholarship focuses on the legal job market.
Henderson's research, which is based on data obtained from the ABA and ALM Research, a subsidiary of the parent company of The National Law Journal, shows dismal job prospects for many law graduates from lower-tier schools already in existence. New law schools, historically, have fallen into the lower tiers of the rankings by U.S. News & World Report, at least in their first years of operation.
Part of Henderson's research focuses on so-called "bad outcomes" experienced by law students, which include graduates who were unemployed nine months after graduation, graduates whose job status was unknown or students who flunked out. He determined the 50 law schools with the highest percentages of bad outcomes and revealed a range between 49.1 percent and 27.9 percent of bad outcomes among the 20 law schools with the highest percentages of such outcomes. All of those schools were ranked either in the third or fourth tier by U.S. News & World Report.
"The popular perception is that there's a big monolith of wealth," he said. "The reality is that some people are making lots of money, and a lot of people are not able to make a living."
Henderson's research is based on data collected from 2005 and 2007. But the job market may be even bleaker now due to a downturn in the economy in 2008.
Whether the economy in the Connecticut region can sustain a law school at the University of New Haven, in addition to Yale Law School, University of Connecticut School of Law and Quinnipiac University School of Law, is something that University of New Haven officials are considering, said university Provost David Dauwalder.
The school has implemented a feasibility study, and the university's president, Steven Kaplan, has touted the university's strong forensic science and criminal justice programs as a solid base for a law school.
The job market is one of the factors the study is addressing, Dauwalder said.
But law schools are not required in their bids specifically to focus on whether their communities can sustain more lawyers in their bids. Instead, schools generally pay more attention to whether the market can support enrollment.
"You have to ask yourself if there is a demand for lawyers," said Thomas Guernsey, dean of Albany Law School of Union University in Albany, N.Y. He said plans for the new law schools in his area are "silly."
The perception that law schools are "cash cows" that bring in big money for universities because they have much lower overhead than other professional schools is a myth, he said.
Law schools need at least $50 million to get started, he said, and have much higher operating costs -- including career services staffers and admissions teams -- than in the past. Moreover, public law schools, which can charge lower tuition, require states to kick in the shortfall, he noted.
Because of restraint of trade issues, the ABA cannot limit the number of law schools that seek or obtain accreditation. In addition, the accreditation process does not specifically require law schools to demonstrate that their students can find employment after graduation.
"That's not the issue for us," said Hulett H. "Bucky" Askew, consultant on legal education for the ABA's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
The job market should be part of a feasibility study, Askew said, but the ABA's concerns are whether a law school seeking accreditation has conducted a thorough feasibility study and whether it is equipped to serve its stated mission.
The new law schools come at a time when applications nationwide are declining. The number of people applying to the 198 ABA-accredited law schools and the nine provisionally accredited schools across the country dropped for the fourth year in a row, according to the Law School Admission Council.
Preliminary figures for fall 2008 showed a 1.0 percent decline in the number of applicants, while the number of applications increased by 2.7 percent. The figures indicate that while fewer people are applying to law school, they are submitting more applications.
At the same time, salaries for the majority of law graduates are not living up to the hype of six-figure first-year pay.
According to Henderson's research, the median salary for the class of 2006 was $62,000, with half the graduates making less than $62,000. The salaries indicated a "bimodal distribution," in which 27.5 percent of the graduates made between $40,000 and $55,000, and 27.8 percent made more than $100,000.
"There's a lot of romanticizing of the profession," said Gina Bowden, a 2007 graduate of University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. Bowden said she graduated in the top 7 percent of her class. She is an associate at Hansen, Culhane, Kohls, Jones & Sommer in Roseville, Calif.
For many law graduates, they can find jobs in the legal profession, but not those that enable them to pay off their loans and make a living.
Nationwide, law school debt in 2007 averaged $87,906 for private law school graduates and $57,170 for public law school graduates, according to the ABA.
Those amounts represented a 21 percent increase in private law school debt since 2002 and a 25 percent escalation in public law school debt.
"The dream of getting the $100,000-plus job is a reality for very few people," Bowden said.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Irvine Donald Bren School of Law, said that the gap between the salaries of graduates going into smaller private practice and the amount of debt they carry is a problem for all law schools. "I don't think that's a reason not to have another law school," he said. Chemerinsky added that the population of Southern California, where Orange County alone has 3 million people, can easily support another public law school.
From Bowden's perspective, an additional law school in California, which already has 20 accredited law schools and 18 unaccredited institutions, is "counterintuitive," she said. However, another top-notch school in the state could force some of the lower-performing schools to improve or run the risk of losing students.
Ultimately, she said, would-be law students must educate themselves before deciding to pursue a law degree.