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High costs, low payoff rob law schools' luster

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Across the country last year, 46,000 newly minted law school graduates hit the job market bearing the crushing weight of their student loan debts.

Nine months later, only 27,000 had found full-time jobs as lawyers.

“Legal education is in crisis,” said Frank Wu, chancellor at Hastings College of the Law. “Nobody has seen anything like this. There are too many lawyers, there are too many law students, and there are too many law schools.”

Once considered a sure bet for a stable, well-compensated career, law has become a riskier gamble. Not only is it harder to become a lawyer now — it has become much more costly. As states withdraw support from public universities and schools chase rankings that reward them for spending more, tuition goes up and up, forcing students to borrow $100,000 or even $200,000 to earn their degrees.

A law degree from the University of California-Berkeley costs $150,000 in tuition and fees, double the cost of just five years ago.

“I have a huge looming debt and no job, so it is really high-anxiety and stressful,” said Lila Milford, a third-year Santa Clara University law student looking for intellectual property work.

“I knew it was going to be challenging,” she said. “I didn't know how challenging.”

Would-be applicants are taking note; across the country, the number of people applying to law school has fallen by nearly a third since 2010, the lowest number in more than a decade.

Law schools are under pressure from all sides: Prospective students balk at the high tuition, while firms assert that graduates leave school unequipped to practice law. Even President Obama made waves last month by suggesting that law school take two years, instead of three.

“The third year they'd be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren't getting paid that much,” said Obama, who once taught at the University of Chicago law school. “But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”

Last week, an American Bar Association task force described the crisis in stark terms. It noted mounting financial pressures on law schools, high student debt, years of sharply falling applications, and “the predicament of so many students and recent graduates who may never procure the sort of employment they anticipated when they enrolled.”

The report called for sweeping changes in legal education, such as greater flexibility in what law schools must teach and how, and new licensing programs for basic legal services now too expensive for most Americans to afford. The financial crisis forced the bar association to consider solutions that had been floating around for decades, said Bob Gordon, a professor at Stanford.

“I think it's pretty clear it's going to be a shake-up in this market, given the drastic decline in applications,” he said.

Like many other fields, the legal profession has been upended by do-it-yourself software, overseas outsourcing, public sector cuts and corporate clients demanding that big law firms lower their charges.

Faculty at Hastings, UC-Berkeley and Santa Clara University said they are responding by giving their students more practical experience during their second and third years by adding legal clinics and “externships” with local organizations and companies.

Law student James Giacchetti ­— who worked under attorneys in Santa Clara County's misdemeanor court — said he is determined to be a public defender.

“It's not as if we entered law school blindly,” said Giacchetti. “It's not a bad thing to have a (law degree). You have to consider that this is an investment in a career and not just a short-term way of making money.”

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