WASHINGTON Young lawyers with huge educational debts and no jobs in a depressed 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 in Washington, D.C., 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 late 2007, tracking the overall job market. Many lawyers have the added burden of six-figure tuition debt.
Critics including two 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.
In his most extensive and direct comments on the criticism to date, 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 (Chevrolet) 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."
The ABA is the largest trade group for U.S. lawyers. Membership is voluntary, and it provides services such as continuing legal education. It also has several quasi-public functions, such as accreditation for law schools and vetting federal judicial nominees. It claims nearly 400,000 members.
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.
(Editing by Gary Hill)