Toeing the Ethical Line: Are For-Profit Law Schools Lowering Standards and Increasing Student Debt?

Legal Ethics Photo by: Caitlin Swift

Note from the Editors:  Recently, the Campbell Law Observer hosted a write-on competition to recruit new staff writers.  Each student was to discuss the impact of for-profit law schools on the legal academy and the legal profession.  Below, you will find the article that received the second-highest score from the editorial board.  We have published these articles in an attempt to display two perspectives.


It is no secret that entering the legal profession in its current state is a dicey decision.  Headlines in the legal community and mainstream media focus on the rising number of unemployed or underemployed lawyers.  The blogs of scorned would-be attorneys decry the profession and encourage anyone considering it to run in a different direction.  Quickly.  Instead of working for big firms and winning big cases, many lawyers are finding themselves working in small or solo practices – if they are practicing at all – and struggling to repay student loans.  But even with the negative coverage of the profession and its very public downward trend, people continue to apply and attend law school.

After the economic downturn in 2008, graduate school seemed a viable option to many individuals, a way to ride out the unemployment storm.  According to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) website, applications to law school increased by 7 percent between 2009 and 2010.  The problem, however, was that a decrease in job availability accompanied an increase in applicants.  These uneven figures resulted in students buried in debt without a job.  After having taken shelter inside law schools, many graduates did not find the post-storm relief for which they had hoped.  According to the Law School Admission Council, although applicant numbers this year have decreased, thousands of students continue to apply, continue to accrue debt, and continue to hope they will be the exception to the legal-community-as-it-is-now.

The picture is not completely bleak.  Many law school graduates are finding jobs, and because the ABA enforced new requirements for post-graduate employment statistics from law schools in 2011, applicants are in a better position to determine which schools offer the highest prospects for legal employment.  However, not all schools are created equally.  With generally higher tuition and lower employment numbers, for-profit law schools often find themselves at the end of the blame-pointing finger.  For-profit law schools are blamed for further diluting an already saturated educational system, doing a disservice to their students and to the legal profession.  But perhaps a greater problem with these schools is the difficulty in reconciling their business model with the standards imposed on law schools and lawyers by the ABA.  Law schools are charged with admitting only students whom they feel would succeed in the profession, and lawyers are expected to work to better legal education.  While for-profit law schools do not explicitly defy these ethical rules, their policies arguably toe the ethical line, which creates difficulties for their graduates and ultimately raises questions as to their sustainability.

The ABA standards for law schools cover areas from admission requirements to student loan obligations, indicating factors the ABA considers important for a successful legal education.  Each institution is expected to comply with these standards to receive accreditation.  Standard 501 governs law school admissions, requiring that schools “maintain sound admission policies and practices.”  Further, the standard maintains that a law school should accept only those applicants who “appear capable of completing its educational program and being admitted to the bar.”  Though this standard does not provide specific numerical requirements for law schools to follow, nowhere in the standard is it mentioned that everyone should be admitted to law school.  The standard instead makes it clear that schools should be selective in admitting applicants and accept candidates who are expected to succeed as law students and as practicing attorneys.

The ABA also focuses on legal education beyond law school admission standards. In the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the ABA implores members of the profession to “work to strengthen legal education.”  Stating this as a duty of professional conduct demonstrates the importance of a quality legal academy.  Law schools are expected to admit only qualified students, and practicing lawyers are expected to improve the academy.  Because a legal education is the foundation of the legal profession, it is imperative that the educational system maintains the highest standards and all members of the community strive to achieve that end.

So how do these for-profit law schools attract students?  According to Sha Hinds-Glick, Director of Academic Support and Bar Success at Campbell University School of Law, students who would be unlikely to receive scholarships at other schools are given sizable scholarships for their first year to encourage them to attend.  The scholarships, however, are conditioned on academic performance.  And when the admission standards are low and the scholarship conditions are high, most students lose their scholarships after their first year.  Hinds-Glick points out that because these students have already invested a year and at least some money into their legal education, many students decide to continue, despite losing their scholarship, leaving them paying full-price while the school reaps the financial benefit.

The business model of for-profit law schools involves more than just high prices and conditional scholarships.  These schools also sustain themselves by admitting large class sizes, which has the potential to create a “lawyer mill” style of law school.  Charlotte School of Law, for example, had a total enrollment of 1159 students in the 2011-2012 school year. This number is common among for-profit law schools: Florida Coastal, the country’s first for-profit law school, boasted 1,742 students in 2011-2012.  Keeping enrollment numbers high allows these schools to make a profit more easily, and it protects them from losing money due to attrition rates.  By admitting so many students, the schools make enough money from students’ first year to bear the cost of students who do not complete the program.

While this business model certainly works in the schools’ favor, how does it affect the students?  After three years at a for-profit law school, students will certainly have debt, but their job prospects are not so certain.  Similar to their bar passage rates, for-profit law schools tend to have lower employment rates, as well.  According to a June 2012 Wall Street Journal article, only 55 percent of total law school graduates had full-time legal jobs within nine months of graduation.  While these numbers are bleak for graduates of all schools, the odds seem to disfavor graduates of for-profit schools even more.  Out of 451 Florida Coastal graduates in 2011, only 36.59 percent had jobs that required a JD.  Charlotte School of Law graduated 193 students in 2011, and only 43.3 percent had full-time jobs requiring JDs.  Compared with graduates of law schools such as Duke and UNC, who boasted employment rates of 82 percent and 68 percent respectively, graduates of these for-profit schools are bearing a greater brunt of the job market burden.

Were sustainability based solely on business model, for-profit law schools likely would have little difficulty remaining in business.  These schools would continue to generate a profit, even when their students choose not to continue their studies.  But because the legal community is one based on high standards and a strict ethical code, the sustainability of these schools rests on more than profits.  In order to succeed in the long-term, for-profit law schools must align their business model with the standards set forth by the ABA.  For-profit law schools made the decision to enter into the legal academy, and it is their duty to better this academy by improving the educational and, ultimately, professional experiences for their students.  Rather than toeing the line, for-profit law schools must place themselves decidedly on the side of ethics, demonstrating their goal is more than simply making money. Their goal, like that of the legal community, should be creating better a better legal academy and better lawyers.


Avatar photo
About Harper Gwatney, Former Associate Editor/Ethics (9 Articles)
Harper Gwatney, originally from Goldsboro, North Carolina, served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2013-2014 academic year. She was also a member of the school's Mock Trial Team and an Associate Chair of the Old Kivett Advocacy Council. Prior to law school, Harper received a Bachelor's degree in English from UNC-Chapel Hill and a Master's in the Art of Teaching from East Carolina University. Harper then taught Honors and IB English at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Prior to her graduation from Campbell Law School in May 2014, Harper worked with Walker Allen Grice Ammons & Foy; Superior Court Judge Paul C. Ridgeway; the firm of Stewart Schmidlin Bullock and Gupta; and the Wake County District Attorney's Office.
Contact: EmailTwitter