WASHINGTON, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Young lawyers with huge
educational debts and no jobs in a depressed U.S. legal market
should have known what they were getting into, the president of
the American Bar Association said on Wednesday.
William Robinson, in an interview with Reuters at the ABA's
office here, responded to a deluge of recent criticisms from
Congress, the media and law students about the role of the trade
group in fostering high expectations about legal jobs.
Robinson, a lawyer in Kentucky, said anyone entering law
school has already completed an undergraduate degree or more.
"It's inconceivable to me that someone with a college
education, or a graduate-level education, would not know before
deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over
the last several years and that the job market out there is not
as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years
ago," he said.
College graduates are capable of making "an independent
decision and a free choice" to go to law school, he said.
"We're not talking about kids who are making these
decisions," said Robinson, who is midway through a one-year term
as ABA president.
The number of U.S. legal jobs shrank during the recession
that began in 2007, tracking the overall job market. Many
lawyers have the added burden of six-figure tuition debt.
Critics including two U.S. senators have asked whether the
bar association does enough to police law schools, a handful of
which face allegations that they inflated statistics about
post-graduation employment in order to attract more students.
Robinson said the number of schools in question is "no more
than four" out of 200 with ABA accreditation, and he said few
lawmakers have expressed interest in the subject. "It hasn't
been a groundswell of comment from Congress," he said.
Stories in The New York Times and elsewhere have scrutinized
the accreditation process, suggesting some ABA
standards , such as encouraging tenure, unnecessarily
raise law school costs.
Robinson called such suggestions unfounded.
"None of the studies show that the ABA rules of
certification are what's responsible for the cost of legal
education," he said. Other factors, such as competition for
professors, are driving the increase in cost, he said.
Robinson recalled his own experience paying for law school
at the University of Kentucky, where he got a degree in 1971.
"When I was going to law school, and I sold my
Corvair to make first-semester tuition and books for $330, a
sizeable portion of the faculty had tenure. They had tenure then
and they have tenure now," he said.
There are still inexpensive options outside the elite law schools, he said. According to ABA statistics, 68 ABA-accredited
law schools have annual tuition at or below $25,000.
Among elite schools that charge double that, the ABA is
powerless to hold down costs, he said.
"I should take the lead in telling these schools that they
should reduce their tuition to $25,000 a year? No, I don't think
I should do that. I don't think it would be purposeful. I don't
think it would be meaningful. I don't think it would accomplish
anything for me to do that," Robinson said.
He said "it's a complex question as to whether the cost is
higher than it should be or is justified."
One start-up school in Tennessee, Lincoln Memorial
University's Duncan School of Law, is suing the ABA after the
association denied it accreditation last year. The law school
wants to be a low-cost option for those from rural Appalachia.
Robinson declined to comment on the case.
Reporting by David Ingram
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