Book Review: Failing Law Schools

Law school professors and deans are primarily responsible for both the black hole of legal employment and the mountains of debt facing recently minted lawyers. If there were still any doubt about that, Washington University Law Professor Brian Z. Tamanaha’s new book, Failing Law Schools, blows that doubt into a million pieces. And despite Tamanaha’s previous scholarly output, reading this book does not in any way feel like homework.


If you are new to the sky-is-falling view of law schools and the legal profession, this book is a fantastic introduction to the current state of affairs. For those of us who have been following recent events, the most valuable part of the book is “Part I: Temptations of Self-Regulation.” Here we learn, for example, how law professors hijacked the ABA accreditation process by pushing the academic vs. clinical law school model. This destroyed any possibility for non-elite schools to build a practical and low-cost lawyer-training model.

Scholars, not teachers

Part II describes the results. Once law professors became scholars first, teachers second, their class loads fell. And fell. And fell. Some law professors teach only 3 classes per year. So students pay close to Harvard tuition levels for a 4th-tier law school degree.

US News Ratings

Part III eviserates the schools for their half-truths, misrepresentaions, marketing absurdities, and cowardly, rationalized responses to criticism while they chase (or protect) their US News rankings, rankings that, beyond the top 25 schools or so, have virtually no value in terms of measuring the quality of the education a student receives. And everyone knew which were the elite schools before US News got into the ratings game.

Tuition, and reform

Part IV explains why tuition and debt have skyrocketed despite the fact that demand for lawyers has been dropping since well before the meltdown of 2008-09—because no one inside law schools had any reason to try to stop it from doing so. Tamanaha wraps up with some advice to prospective law students (basically, don’t go if you can’t get into an elite school, or someone is paying the tab for you) followed by some very reasonable suggestions for reform.

There’s a significant amount of hard data in the book, but what makes it compelling reading is the tone of frustration and anger. Tamanaha is embarrassed (ashamed, even) by the way law schools claim to be the teachers of ethics while behaving completely unethically. Here’s one example of his anger. You don’t often get this kind of writing from a law professor:

Unlike professors generally, who undergo a rigorous tenure process, tenure for law professors—lifetime job security—is achieved with a relatively low quantity of scholarly production and in practice is seldom denied. Our quality of life is far better than that of lawyers, and we make more than most lawyers. Law professors have found the sweet spot between two professions—thank you very much.


Failing Law Schools

Reviewed by Andy Mergendahl on .

Summary: This book is a rational, unassailable indictment by a consummate insider; it should be required reading for every law school professor, dean, and anyone considering law school.

  • Price: $16.50 (hardcover) $9.90 Kindle edition

Overall score: 4.5 (out of 5)


  1. Avatar Karen Lundquist says:

    I am in the middle of reading this and have been left speechless with the inside, dirty look at law schools and in particular, the hold that US News & World reports holds over them for the rankings and the expansion of faculty to serve the faculty, and not the students. The entire system looks nothing but sleezy and self-serving from the portrait painted of it. I agree that it should also be required reading for anyone thinking about going to law school. It would likely change many people’s minds, and that would be a good thing.

  2. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    Thanks for the review, Andy.

    Thanks, too, to Prof. Tamanaha for putting together what all of us who have followed law schools’ and legal education’s sad journey down the rabbit hole have known for a very long time.

    Two more parties to add to the Hall of Shame: Jack Gourman of the Gourman Report and the American Lawyer Top 100.

    Jack Gourman’s controversial and deeply flawed surveys of colleges and universities began to be widely criticized in the early 1980s, around the time that American Lawyer began to give BigLaw partners a score card to measure profits-per-partner.
    (See “Who is Jack Gourman and why is he saying all these things about my college?”

    American Lawyer’s profits-per-partner scorecard and USNews’ rankings came together in a perfect storm for legal education and the legal profession. No good has come from either one.

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