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Did U of L law school Dean Jim Chen’s critical writings about law school tuition cost him his job?

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With the newspapers focused on Richie Farmer’s antics and a Dick Francis-worthy who-done-it killing at Churchill Downs, the departure of former Brandeis School of Law Dean Chen last month got zero coverage outside Insider Louisville.

Which figures, because Chen’s story is – you know – important.

Why is it important?

Because Chen is shaping the national debate over where the legal profession is headed, which may have a dramatic and painful impact on U of L specifically, and on the city’s legal community as a whole.

Insider Louisville reported last Friday that Chen had resigned as dean of Louis D. Brandeis School of Law after five years.

Just why Chen left is unclear.

Insider Louisville left messages for Chen, asking for an interview. We also made overtures through back channel sources, but to no avail.

Several insiders tell Insider Louisville part of the reason Chen left was a paper published last December, “A Degree of Practical Wisdom: The Ratio of Educational Debt to Income as a Basic Measurement of Law School Graduate’s Economic Viability.”

In “Practical Wisdom,” Chen sparked a national debate by addressing whether law school tuition is money well spent. Or more to the point, whether a student coming out of law school with tens of thousands in tuition debt is going to find a job offering sufficient income to pay down that debt, much less eat and buy a house.

From a synopsis:

Adequate financial viability is realized when annual salary matches or exceeds three years of law school tuition. A marginal, arguably minimally acceptable level of financial viability requires a salary that is equal to two years’ tuition. Chen concludes that for a student who pays or borrows $48,000 in annual tuition she needs to earn $288,000 for “good viability,” $144,000 for adequate viability and $96,000 for marginal viability. Under these rules of thumb the vast majority of law students attending private law schools will never earn enough to pay down the debt.

Translated: A law degree, even at a third-rank school, used to be the guarantee to an upper-middle-class lifestyle, if not true wealth. Now, the number of partners’ slots at big firms is decreasing. Which makes it less likely that a law degree from a middlin school will even pay for itself. Not what U of L President James Ramsey wants to hear.

Several sources with direct knowledge of events say Chen’s departure was due to internal faculty tensions, not the paper, but declined to elaborate.

Others say the paper added to the pressure.

U of L officials deny that.

“To my knowledge there is absolutely no connection between Jim Chen’s thoughtful, well-reasoned writings and his decision to step down as dean of UofL’s Brandeis School of Law,” stated Mark Hebert in an email.

Hebert noted a quote from “Practical Wisdom”: “By any measure, the University of Louisville offers a great bargain in legal education.”

Chen may be gone, but this story ain’t goin’ away.

And Chen isn’t backing away from the debate. He told Mitch Smith at Inside Higher Ed, who blogged about Hastings School of Law at the University of California admitting 20 percent fewer students to cut the glut of lawyers:

I’m totally understanding of what Hastings is trying to accomplish, and I’m very sympathetic to the idea that ou don’t want to admit more people into a declining (job) market. How you manage to do that without the revenue is going to pose a very formidable challenge for most American law schools.

The daily Internet chatter about Chen is fueling speculation about Chen, the law school and the viability of law as a career.

Here’s former medical school professor Dr. Peter Hasselbacher’s take from his blog at the Kentucky Health Policy Institute:
Dean Chen’s change in status was noticed by the national legal community. In the National Law Journal he was called “one of the more vocal internal critics of legal education.” He recently gained attention for a paper analyzing the impact of the cost of legal education on its students and on their future career options. In a just-published paper in the William Mitchell Law Review, Dr. Chen compared typical debt burdens of UofL students to those from private law schools. In addition to displaying a staggering command of numeric analysis that could place him on the faculty of a mathematics department, Dr. Chen concluded that the educational debt of a typical graduating in-state UofL law student of $75,000 makes it unlikely that the student could afford even a $100,000 house unless the student was one of the lucky few to obtain a high-end job. Dean Chen had the audacity to question whether the economic value of a legal education is as great as many schools advertise. He certainly made a strong argument that the amount of educational debt a student gains will influence their choice of careers. I have said before, that it is not always wise at the University of Louisville to serve as the conscience of your unit.

As soon as we posted our story, legal insiders started calling saying, “In your first post about Jim, you missed the story.”

Chen may be gone, but his departure remains a national story largely because of the collapse of one of the largest law firms in the United States.

If you read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, you know Dewey & LeBoeuf  in New York City is near collapse.

Dewey & LeBoeuf  is in trouble partly because of mismanagement. But there also are fundamental changes in the legal world that mean $72,000-plus entry level salaries of law school grads coming into the firm are no longer sustainable, much less the seven-figure salaries Dewey & LeBoeuf  partners earned each year.

As Dewey & LeBoeuf goes, so go the whiteshoe firms in small cities such as Louisville?

As we said, this story ain’t goin’ away.

 

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