Early in March, the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee nixed a $400,000 request by the University of Idaho College of Law for its satellite campus in Boise. The decision concerned Rep. Shirley Ringo, who said, "People going into the area of law are upset over the size of loans they finish law school with The public law school offers a more affordable route for those students to go."
Her sentiments echo those of the law school's dean, Don Burnett, who in a January JFAC hearing warned that if the state didn't help finance the law school's branch campus, Idahoans would be forced to pay "a hidden tax" on legal services. He reasoned that if the state didn't produce the lawyers locally, out-of-state private law school graduates would move in and charge more because of their six-figure student-loan burdens.
Comparatively high private law school debt is not a persuasive reason to expand the law school. Student debts don't have much of an impact on lawyers' fees, and Idaho's production of lawyers already outstrips its future needs. Aside from Idaho law class of 2012 graduating with an average debt load of $96,406 - a figure that excludes interest accrued while in school - the alleged "hidden tax" on legal fees simply defies common sense. Someone who puts $10,000 in lottery tickets on a credit card and goes bust is unlikely to succeed in demanding a raise from her employer to cover the debt. Likewise, student-loan protesters tend to be debtors and never employers.
Less illustratively, most law school graduates' student debts are eligible for the federal government's Income-Based Repayment program, which caps monthly payments and allows law school debtors to accept lower-paying positions, making it possible for private law school graduates to compete with those from public schools.
Former U of I president Duane Nellis, who also spoke at the January JFAC hearing, commented, "We actually import lawyers from other states, because we're not supplying enough."
However, Idaho's lawyer needs are more than met locally: The state Department of Labor projects 69 lawyer jobs opening per year between 2010 and 2020.
Meanwhile, according to American Bar Association employment data, U of I -Law produced 104 graduates in 2012, of which only 59 secured full-time, long-term positions requiring bar passage by February 2013. This is on top of 198 graduates in 2010 and 2011.
With the recently established Concordia University School of Law (also in Boise) seeking national accreditation, it's likely the state will be awash in underemployed lawyers in a few years. Many of them will leave the state because of the impracticability of opening small practices in a saturated market, or they will abandon the profession entirely.
Because Burnett's "hidden tax" argument doesn't hold water, no one in Idaho should be worried if the state is importing lawyers. If anything, it's an argument for reducing state funding to the law school: Why pay to make something locally you can get for free from elsewhere?
If Idaho is truly encountering difficulty in finding lawyers because of excessive student loan debts, it could simplify the state's lawyer licensing requirements. For example, permitting college graduates to sit for the bar exam would probably not reduce the quality of legal services in the state and would save everyone money. Everyone, that is, except the law school.
email@example.com. Matt Leichter, licensed to practice law in Wisconsin and New York, writes a blog, "The Law School Tuition Bubble." His work also appears on The Am Law Daily.