August 1, 2008

Curtail Law School Plans ; With the State Hurting Financially, Adding Over-Capacity Makes No Sense

Anybody notice a shortage of lawyers around here?

Didn't think so.

Yet the New York Legislature has quietly allocated $50 million in seed money to create three new law schools in a state that already has 15 of them.

The money is for preliminary work to create law schools at the State University of New York campuses in Stony Brook on Long Island and at Binghamton, as well as at the private St. John Fisher College near Rochester.

It's not that anyone is really arguing that New York needs to train more lawyers. With 150,000 already on the roles, we have the most of any state. And one year's worth of new admissions to the New York Bar -- about 9,200 -- is said to be about five years' worth of jobs available for lawyers.

The argument is that the state's only two public law schools, at the University at Buffalo and the City University of New York in Queens, are at opposite ends of the state, 426 miles apart, far removed from too many aspiring lawyers who cannot afford to attend the more expensive private schools that dot the landscape.

Consider it stipulated that the average debt of $77,000 that burdens new graduates of private law schools is a lot. It is not the best public policy to make the law a career that is out of reach for all but the wealthiest, or the least debt-averse. But for the state to create and fund three more law schools, one of them on a private campus, when it is already siphoning money from the SUNY system budget to cover other state budget shortfalls is just not, well, just.

The state's deficit is huge, and its system of higher education, including its law schools, is underfunded as it is. There is no rational motivation for the plan beyond the hope of economic benefits for individual communities and empire building for university presidents.

Having a law school makes a university more prestigious, more influential, more likely to have wealthy alumni making donations and powerful alumni issuing government grants. It gets you higher on the U.S. News and World Report list of the best colleges.

But the state cannot afford to create new law schools. Any money it could add to the higher education budget should go to improving the universities it does have, including slots and scholarships that would allow more folks to attend the UB and CUNY law schools without loading up the students, or the state, with more debt.

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