‘Failing Law Schools’ Author Brian Tamanaha Praises UH Law School for Excellence and ‘Modest’ Tuition Increases

         One of the most outspoken critics of the high cost of American legal education has praise for the University of Hawai‘i’s William S. Richardson School of Law, noting that UH has managed to keep tuition increases “modest” while offering an excellent education.
        Brian Tamanaha, the author of “Failing Law Schools,” and one of the most vociferous voices raising concerns about the spiking cost of American law schools, puts the UH Law School in a contrasting high-quality category, calling it one of about two dozen “excellent” state law schools that continue to charge tuition below $20,000 a year.
          In a recent talk for law school faculty, staff, and students at the Richardson School of Law, Tamanaha noted: “On a purely economic basis, the Law Schools that have been modest in tuition increases – those that charge below $20,000 – can keep debt at $60,000 (for graduates of the three-year program) and that’s manageable debt.
        “UH is among those tuition levels.”
          By contrast, he noted that tuition alone at the most expensive schools in the country is over $50,000 annually, with total costs of attending going over $80,000 a year. He cited private schools such as Columbia, Harvard and Fordham as well as some public schools such as Berkeley, Michigan, and Virginia.
       “The three-year out of pocket is from $225,000 to $245,000,“ he stressed.
        Tamanaha - the William Gardiner Hammond Professor of Law at the Washington University School of Law and the author of six books - said law school tuition in general has risen much faster than inflation.  In 2001, the average cost of tuition at a private law school was $22,961; today it’s $40,585. The average cost of public law school in 2001 was $8,419. By 2011, it was $23,590.
        The Hawai‘i-born Tamanaha emphasized the problem of the escalating debt load that students carry after graduation – especially considering the reduced opportunities for legal jobs, which is part of the country’s continuing economic woes.
        “Half of the law students pay full tuition,” he said. “Ninety percent of students borrow money. And 90 percent of law students are in debt.
        “The average private (law school) student debt is $125,000. The amount due monthly would be $1,450. You need a salary well above $100,000 to manage to pay that.”
        But Tamanaha pointed out that the national median salary level is $60,000 a year for a newly-minted law graduate.
         He also raised the alarm that law schools are seeing a smaller applicant pool. Even though more people than ever are writing LSATs – the test that helps assess law school readiness and also aptitude – the number who actually apply to Law School has dropped from about 70-75 percent of the test takers in 2005 to around 63 percent today.
         What he does see as positive is the option for law graduates to take public service jobs that discharge their debt after 10 years. For many, he said, this means “earning a decent salary and in 10 years their debt is done.”
          Richardson Law Dean Avi Soifer notes that Tamanaha’s comments about the strength of the UH Law School are well taken.
       “We’re considerably below his charts for average debt and our students are finding legal jobs at a rate well above the national average. In fact, we have a higher percent of our graduates obtaining both prestigious judicial clerkships and public interest law jobs.”
        Tamanaha’s talk kicked off a discussion of the current and future curriculum of the Richardson Law School among faculty and staff members.