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The Future of Legal Education: A Dean's Perspective

  • Broadcast in Education
Ann Levine

Ann Levine


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Ann Levine, law school admission consultant and owner of Law School Expert, interviews Jim Chen, Dean and Professor of Law at Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. They will discuss why law school is so expensive, whether it's worth getting a law degree outside of the Top 14, what law schools are doing to change with the times, and what's important in choosing a law school.


0:05 Ann Levine

Hello! This is Ann Levine and you are listening to the 19th Law School Expert, Blog Talk Radio show. Today we'll be talking about the investment that goes into law school and whether and when it's worthwhile our guest today is Dean Jim Chen from the University of Louisville Brandeis, School Of Law. Thanks for being here Jim.

0:27 Jim Chen

Thank you.

0:29 Ann Levine

In the past year, I've spent a lot of time delving into the law school decision and whether people should go to how to decide whether to go to law school and it's spelt what you should be aware as you enter law school, choose a law school and go on to build your career, and that effort one of the results whilst the law school decision game, a play book for prospective lawyers, which is how I happen to be introduced to our guest today through the wonders of twitter and blogging. I would like to share that how I meet my guest because I really want to encourage prospective lawyers to spend a lot of time networking and to show that it does payoff. So, thank you for being here today.

1:12 Jim Chen

I really appreciate it.

1:13 Ann Levine

If you are listening to Blog Talk Radio show for the first time, the Law School Expert show. You maybe interested to learn about the law school expert blog at lawschoolexpert.com/blog. I am going to start today by introducing a little bit about you Jim and feel free to elaborate if you'd like. Basically, you went to Emory as an undergrad and then to Harvard for law school and a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thomas, if I understand correctly.

1:42 Jim Chen


1:43 Ann Levine

And you went through academia and now at a regional law school as dean and you've been spending a lot of time educating the public, in my opinion, in a good way about what's involved in investing in a legal education and that's the thing we are here today.

2:03 Jim Chen


2:04 Ann Levine

So, why don't you tell me a little bit about your opinions about whether law school remains a worthwhile endeavor and to what extent the rank of the law school plays into that?

2:17 Jim Chen

Well I think the law school -- people get to law school for a lot of reasons. But one of the things that I think prospective students should keep in mind is that likely, however, that they will be able to afford their loans to afford the kind of lifestyle that they expect from themselves if they do get to law school and those considerations of what to figure in the decision whether to apply to law school on the first place and they should in fact, which law school you go to after you have a set of, but we hope our attractive admission's office offers in front of you.

2:59 Ann Levine

So tell me a little bit about the research that you think prospective law students should be doing as they are making this decision.

3:08 Jim Chen

Well I think first of all you should, any prospective law school student should ask herself or himself, why do I wanna be a lawyer? If you have a passion for resolving disputes for getting deals done for helping people manage their way through the system of justice all of those are good reasons, do you of course want to keep in mind your need and you want to maintain a certain lifestyle. All of those are of legitimate factors. Couple of things are worth remembering, you are highly and likely to score a very large economic payoff in law school. Every profession has a few exceptional members of the profession who make a considerable amount of money, but the best that you're already of lawyers make something on either side of a $100,000.

4:09 Ann Levine

I think that's a really important point actually in the local decision game actually outline what the top 10 professions are if we are just looking at earning and well lawyers are in the top 10 of those, seven of them are medical professionals, 7 of the 10, and the others are extreme cases. There's people who are CEO, engineering managers at a high level, or in the financial world investment managers what have you and so I think it's really important to keep in mind that there is a lifestyle that comes in being a lawyer and that the salaries that are out there are very respectable and you can support the family on them, but that were not really talking about going to law school to make millions a year here.

4:53 Jim Chen

Right, I mean if you have that desire there are other ways and frankly, there are more certain ways the outcome -- if you are hoping to make a lot of money by going to law school that is a very high risk proposition you may not get that and it depends on what your definition of a lot of the money is. If you think that a lot of money -- if you think a $150,000 is a lot of money by all means because law school is a path that can lead to that kind of outcome if you follow the right path and are very careful with debt and managing your earning right after graduation from law school, but if you expect something closer to half million a year or a seven digit income, this is not the path.

5:51 Ann Levine

So, let's talk about that. So now that we have laid out what people can reasonably expect to make us lawyers and certainly we are not talking about your first year at law school salaries here, but after you...

6:00 Jim Chen

Absolutely not.

6:01 Ann Levine

Building a career. So tell me what kind of that then might make sense because we also have to assume that not everyone is thinking that to get to law school and if they are not, then this is a much easier decision in many ways, because then you really looking an opportunity cost and what your passions are and you don't have to worry about the rest of it, but for most law students, that is an issue. So talk to me a little bit, I know you recently published an article in __06:30__. Do I have that correctly?

6:32 Jim Chen

Yes, in these points.

6:33 Ann Levine

Yes go ahead. It is about this very issue about you know whether...

6:39 Jim Chen

Sure. It called a degree of scale it's -- the article is called A Degree of Practical Wisdom: The Ratio of Educational Debt to Income as a Measure of Law School Graduates' Economic Viability and its downloadable at bitly/Degree Practical Wisdom will go ahead and exchange those at links offline at some point so that your blog readers can download you paper.

7:07 Ann Levine

And now that __07:09__.

7:10 Jim Chen

Put it up, very good so that whole point is that I've written this out and you know with a lot of math, medical formulation and some real numbers, but it falls down to this, you really need to have a rule from this, it's right in the middle, your total debt from education and I mean undergraduate debt, post law school debt needs to be right at what your annual income is and the reason I think this has limit all a good outcome is when your annual income is double, what your total debt is and if you are on the other hand, if you know it's closer to 2/3, then you're in a more marginal situation. So the reason I say this is important okay or another way of looking at it is that how much is your first job paying out of law school. If your first job is paying six times with your annual law school tuition cost, you then you are going to be in very good shape. You will be in adequate shape if your annual salary is three times your annual tuition and if you make double what you pay for tuition, let's say you are third year that will put you right on the margin and what I find to some margin is that, can you seemingly your savings and then you may not you probably won't if she is been going to law school and you have been devoting all your resources to undergraduate education into legal education. Can you, assuming that you have the down payment qualified for a mortgage lot. Can you afford and own a house and pay also law school debt? I know that there any many other measures of professional success, but this is the United States of America and that's the American dream. You should be at a minimum at some point relatively early in your life able to buy a home, share it with someone you love and start a family. That is I think that's what people basically want no matter who they are, where they are. So the question is...

9:33 Ann Levine

In this question, this is to know different as well if we are talking about how much law school can work because I know in the article, you wrote you sort of use the $100,000 at a simple home price mortgage amount and I know, for example that would even be a down payment on a house. So I think that it is important and this will come back to a topic we'd address shortly, but we you are choosing a law school the region where you hope to practice law is very important and will change its calculation drastically.

10:01 Jim Chen

Absolutely, I mean I think the cost of living where you expect to practice law has to be taken into account in the salaries in that metropolitan area. Typically, we will not always will follow suit and if you do need to carefully balance where you hope to practice, where you hope to live and frankly, what you hope to do with our law degree because if you goal is to become a member of your states judiciary, your goal is to sit on the state's Supreme Court. That's a great ambition, but if you achieve your goal frankly, you are making somewhere in the low 100s. That is your lifetime maximum earning per year and you need to account for that and quite typically, those are elected positions and you have to satisfy a little bit of money from law practice for the campaign and all sorts of expenses along the way that you have to consider part of your career planning. On the other hand, if you really do want to practice a lucrative, in a lucrative area of law in a high cost, high income city, you might make different choices when it comes to taking law schools.

11:23 Ann Levine

So let's talk about that, talk to me a little bit about, for example you're someone who went to Harvard and I know one thing we have talked about in the past after I, I think you read this in the law school decision game is, I have a philosophy that if someone calls me and tells me that they only want to go to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia, then they don't really want to be a lawyer, but they are doing it for the pedigree, etc. So as a Harvard lawyer who now is at University of Louisville as dean. Tell me how you feel about that and how you would advice applicants to law school who are considering whether it's worth going if you are not going to a huge and main brand school.

12:02 Jim Chen

Ann, I couldn't agree with you more. I think if any person came to me today and said I would like to go to law school, but only if it's rank number five or above. If it is not Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago, Stanford whatever your definition of top 5 is, if it is not one of those schools, you know it is not worthy. I would then advice that person and say, "You know what take that first if part of your sense is __12:27__. Just throw it away. It is not worthy. You should go. You shouldn't go." You shouldn't go because deep down, you don't want to become a lawyer. You want to be a graduate of Harvard and if you want to be a graduate of Harvard by all means go and be prepared to pay $50,000 in tuition plus the expenses of living in or near Cambridge, Massachusetts for whatever program you want to pursue, but obviously law is not your passion. Under those circumstances, I would say, don't go.

13:02 Ann Levine

Let me -- and this is the kind you would offered to have it that I told you, but I think it was a really good point. Do you have any ideas for a good test if law is my passion, I mean how does someone know that whether if someone is currently an undergraduate and listening to this or anything of a career change, which has been very popular in the recent economy. How do you know if law is a passion because obviously you don't have the opportunity to really study law in a legal setting and the work you maybe doing for a law firm unless you are high level paralegal may not be all that sophisticated. So how do you know whether this is your passion?

13:38 Jim Chen

You know, this is a really great question and to be honest with you, it is not what I'd prepared for so. This is coming off a little bit of the top of my head. But do I think it's worth couple things, if you think you want to be a lawyer because you like to argue, run away and in fact, we'll shoo you away. We will tell you don't come because that's the absolute wrong attitude. You want to come to law school. You want to become a lawyer because you want people ultimately to agree. You actually want to make things happen if there is a dispute you want to resolve it. If people have two pots of money and you think you know what if I only had what you had and if you know I have to tell it, but I need a loan, I need someone to invest with me. If someone says why I have money and I want more, but I don't know how to make anymore maybe you do. The lawyer is the person who gives us two people to get together and they are working out the details and make sure that the new business actually takes off. That's what lawyers do. So what I would say is pick on either the litigation side or on the transactional side, the business side and there are variations on this theme, you might wanna go to a regulatory side. But you should go and pick what I think might be in your judgment to the least prestigious variation on that theme. So nothing keeps you from observing a family court in your community. Nothing keeps you from observing the zoning board and zoning court appeals. Nothing keeps -- if you know people in the business world. I think you have to dig deep and find out who you can possibly get to introduce you to the work of real lawyers and preferably at a level of law what you hope to make.

15:36 Ann Levine

I think that was fabulous suggestions actually you came really well with some of those that I included in the law school decision game you know and that if people aren't willing to take some of this steps in the retail and go outside the comfort zone and walking into a court room or you call a lawyer and go to where they meet, where they can meet lawyers or after they introduced to lawyers then if you are not willing to take that step and take that initiative, then you really shouldn't be making the steps beyond that of applying to law school yet, you really this is a good test of how committed you are is to reach out and do the exact things that you are mentioning. So thank you so much for throwing that in an impromptu to you.

16:16 Jim Chen

Right. Well think about this, I mean, you are about to undertake off -- I mean law school, go law school could put you in debt by a $150,000. This is on top of which you already owe for your undergraduate degree. Okay, I mean in my article that we discussed earlier, I approach this question from the point of view of servicing mortgage debt that in other words, you know in non-technical terms is can you pay your monthly payment, can you afford to buy a house. Well, here is the difference between housing debt and educational debt, if you can't afford your house anymore.

16:54 Ann Levine

Sell it.

16:55 Jim Chen

You could always just sell the house. You can if the house is not worse what the remaining balance on the mortgage notice, you can try to negotiate some kind of short sale, you can restructure the debt and actually the worst case scenario, you just say you know what, I had a fault, take it and they can't come after you. It is a non recourse debt. All they can do is take the security interest which is the house. When you lose the house and you may not be able to borrow it again, but that's the worse that happens to you. Contrast that with educational debt you take a $150,000 in educational debt. It is yours, but there is exactly one way to get out of it, it's not bankruptcy. It's called death. You have to die.

17:43 Ann Levine


17:44 Jim Chen

So you don't yet to unload law school debt except by working. So before you take on a $150,000 in debt, which might be more than you pay for your house. Remember with the house, you can always move away, you can always sell it and try again. You can't do that with this educational experience.

18:11 Ann Levine


18:12 Jim Chen

There is no such thing of giving it back.

18:14 Ann Levine

Now, I hope we have scared people off on law school. Talk to me a little bit, tell us a little bit about how that now if people are looking into whether law school is their passion, they are being hopefully much more than now then they knew to be five years ago about the financial investment, they are making in law school. So what information should student applicants be looking for at some law schools in terms of how to make a good decision and what should they be asking the schools they are considering and I'll let you stick with that for a minute, well I share a quick story, I recently...

18:49 Jim Chen


18:50 Ann Levine

sat down with five of my former clients, that we had a lovely breakfast in New York City this month, and three of them are at the top five school. One of them is my second year associate who went to Georgetown and that was that number one thing that were talking about, then I ran a scenario by them. I told them I had a current client who got into Harvard and she has a full scholarship to several other top 10 rank schools and what would they do knowing what they know today and I want to tell universally people said, yes, we love our top five school, but she should not take the scholarship.

19:26 Jim Chen

Well here is, let me address that question. I do think that the reason and I am almost certain you should tell your audience and me for that matter why all these former clients were telling their current client to take the scholarship.

19:40 Ann Levine

Well I think...

19:41 Jim Chen

As opposed to go into mild in the water.

19:43 Ann Levine

Right, well I think that their point was that they all feel a lot of burden by the financial aspects of this decision that they, although none of them feel they sold out on their career goals because of the students loans they have taken out. They all do feel there is weighing on their shoulders and they all have jobs, by the way, the three of those have jobs throughout the graduation while paying job, their classmates all have jobs, but they still feel that this will impact their choices in the future. When and how will they get to have children and who is gonna raise those children? Mom or two different nannies given the amount of hours they have to work and neither really that kinds of issues that they are thinking about I think when they are advising my current client you know that I am presenting to them someone hypothetically and they are saying you know this is what they would advice her and they still think she would have fabulous career opportunities etc.

20:38 Jim Chen

Right. I mean a debt that is not there turns into a down payment on a house. It turns into the freedom to take less while paying, but more personally satisfying work. It means leisure with your family. It may mean being able to save when you are 25 instead of 35 or 45 for your retirement and that means that retirement happens not at 65 to even 75, but 55. So these are things that the 24, 25-year-old who is thinking maybe going to law school may not taken to account and all you can see is the bright lights of top one and top two.

21:23 Ann Levine


21:24 Jim Chen

And the question is. How valuable is that name doing to be as opposed to your quality of life when no one really knows or __21:33__ cares where you went to law school. That's a very worthwhile question. So you asked me Ann about what people should look for from a law school. I think when you are examining law school, you might wanted to ask yourself, where do people work today who 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 25 years ago went to this law school because that's going to be me. And if they are working as chamber partners at the mid to the largest five law firms in account that you are interested in, that's one possible career outcome there maybe lawyers on their own or in partnership of one from another with one or two other people. They might be working in state government. They might be out of all, all together and their working as corporate executives or anywhere on businesses, but I would ask the Professional Development Office in a law school, what do your graduates typically do? Give me some real numbers? Give me some numbers on bar passers, because what you want is you want to be able your couple build a numbers when you get scholarships, do your scholarships carry with them some expectation of the minimum GPA and by the way, tell me that real math on the GPA. You don't want to accept the scholarship that can somehow be blow up on you. You don't want to be in a position where you follow up the law school was this, but you then feels as if you have been on the wrong side of the ___23:18__ switch game after one or two years. No one likes a promise.

23:23 Ann Levine

_23:23_ I am familiar with this issue which really came to had in the last year in the media, but basically the issue is that the school offers scholarship. Many schools offer scholarships that are very unlikely to be renewed because of the stringent GPA requirement during the first year and many people go into the scholarships so very optimistic about what their performances will be during their first year of law school and not realizing what everyone is trying to get into the top 10, but there is only 10% can be there so...

23:54 Jim Chen

It's a mathematical certainty 90% of the class won't be in the top 10%.

23:58 Ann Levine

Yes. Yes.

24:00 Jim Chen

And they have not been, I am being a little fictitious, but it's true you can overestimate -- you really can't afford to overestimate your performance.

24:09 Ann Levine

And that is absolutely something people should consider when they are deciding whether to accept the scholarship. So tell me you were right on the cusp of telling me when I interrupted you. Tell me some other questions people should be asking the career development offices of this law schools or admission offices at this law schools. What are the right questions for them to ask. I am not just a quite a bit actually Jim, you know things like, well okay if someone offered me I should go to school in Boston and if I want to practice in New York and I will see well look how come people took the New York bar, how come the people took jobs based on their interest. So what are some questions that law school -- prosecutable options should think about asking and that law school is really should expect to answer candidly?

24:49 Jim Chen

I think if completely legitimate in fact it is, you formidably should ask if you go into the admission's office of a school that has extended an offer and it say "Look I am from this city, you're in that city. I hope eventually to wind up in this third place. Can that happen and if so, tell me how I can realistically expect to do that? I think that's a very variable question.

25:23 Ann Levine

Absolutely and there is information out there too through NALP now. Even in the AVAL if they see official guide you at law school if you can see the top state that people are taking the bar exams for each law school and information like that and it's amazing how available that is and yet when people ask me about it when I open up the book and read to them what's in there, they don't even know that information was out there. So I think of it is just look for the information incredible places rather than just at lost form.

25:57 Jim Chen

Wait. Well there is something that is worth remembering, just about every law school in the country. They are maybe at most between to 10 to 15. I think realistically, it's more like 10 law schools where their graduates are distributed on a national basis. Every other law school in the country below the top 10 is a regional law school in one sense or another that their footprint might be a whole state, it might be a single metropolitan area, but buying large is a significant proportion of their graduates can be found within a modest radius that takes it maybe at half hour drive, maybe for two-hour drive, but that's how long it takes to reach just about any given graduate.

26:56 Ann Levine

So talk to us a little bit about the benefits of going to a more regional law school like the University of Louisville or another public school like that that serves primarily the local area and tell me about some of the benefits even for students that your school who weren't originally familiar with it.

27:03 Jim Chen

Sure as well. Let me put a picture for University of Louisville and frankly they are quite a few schools that have this kind of mission. We do offer a lower cost of attendance. We offer a very intense in a mid relationship with our local bar. You will have opportunities to meet your prospective employers. You will have the opportunity to interact with members of the bench and bar. We have a fantastic relationship with people who come in teacher's agents. They are good for coaches. They get involved in all aspects of the law school experience and this is part of what it means to go to a school who draw and who's eventual delivery, both take place on a very, very manageable geographic footprint. So you are paying less than you're getting more in many respect, if it as affordable degree. I think you have to be honest if you are interested in maximizing your flexibility to go to Los Angeles or New York or Washington or Anchorage, Alaska then you might have to pay for that flexibility by going to a top 10 school and you might have to be __28:29__ and your other application credentials to make that happen, but it is worth remembering to that the rankings after the top 10, there is very little and absolutely terms to separate a lot of different law school options and the cost of attending the benefits that you get specifically from an experience at a law school closer to where you hope to practice can be considerable. If you think about people who wanted being State Supreme Court Justices, or governors, or US senators, but carefully you will see quite often that they went to the ones who did get to law school, went to law school in the state where they have found their business for political success.

29:19 Ann Levine

And I think that's a fabulous point to leave our listeners there Jim and I really do want to thank you for taking time. I know you have a very busy schedule at the law school and I have really appreciate taking the time to share with future law students and what they need to know why they are making this decision. So thank you so much for your time today.

29:40 Jim Chen

Thank you Ann. It's been a real pleasure being on the show with you.

29:43 Ann Levine

Thank you and if you are interested in learning more about this topic, you can follow __29:49__ and I will put those blog links up when this show post. So thank you so much.