Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, has proposed adding law and medical schools to the University of Alaska system. While the merits of the latter would-be college deserve serious debate and study — particularly given the difficulties of obtaining quality health care in rural Alaska — the idea of creating Alaska’s own JD factory should be quickly dismissed.
Despite its lack of a law school, Alaska has had little trouble getting lawyers to either return after leaving for legal education, or enticing doctors of jurisprudence to come to the Last Frontier. According to numbers from the American Bar Association and the U.S. Census Bureau, America has one lawyer for every 260 people. In Alaska, that number is one for every 295 people. Yes, that does show the state is a bit behind the national average, but that is more a sign that America has too many lawyers than Alaska has too few. The New Zealand Herald pointed out in July, 2010, the United States has more lawyers per capita than any other country in the world. Brazil was No. 2, with one attorney for every 326 people, the Herald article states.
This isn’t intended to devalue the necessary contributions of attorneys to a republic governed by a rule of law. Lawyers provide protection for the advancement of capitalism, advocate for victims of its excesses, prosecute the guilty and defend the innocent.
None of that changes the fact, however, the national recession has hit the legal profession particularly hard, especially for recent graduates. As a recent New York Times article critical of the glut of U.S. law schools and students pointed out, “today, few students except those with strong grade-point averages at top national and regional schools can expect a come-hither from a deep-pocketed firm. Nearly everyone else is in for a struggle.”
The temptation to place a law school in Alaska is certainly understandable. That same New York Times article points out how JD centers are relatively inexpensive as academic programs go, as they don’t need expensive equipment or research labs. And, students pay high rates to learn the legal craft: at the University of Washington, resident students pay $24,327 per year in tuition and fees, a higher rate than any other in-state student, save for new MBA students. But the temptation of adding revenue to the University of Alaska in this way should be resisted. Too many law grads leave school with dismal job prospects and large debt loads to bear — more than $100,000, according to a 2009 Forbes article.
The seed money required to launch a law school could go to better use to endow scholarships for bright Alaskans to go Outside for a fully-funded legal education, in the same vein as the WWAMI program for Alaska’s medical students. It could also be used to better fund district attorney’s offices, Legal Aid, victims’ compensation and public defenders programs.
Alaska has, to this point, avoided the double whammy of serious recession and a broken state budget. And, it’s nice to have the financial luxury to be able to look at the state’s problems with the possibility of addressing them not precluded by a lack of dollars. However, the creation of a law school in Alaska is not a pressing need. Instead, it’s at best something that replicates training that an adequate number of Alaskans can and are already receiving. At worst it’s the creation of a casino of jurisprudence, where a few are rewarded with big payouts in the form of top-paying jobs while the large majority of players receive little but an unimproved ability to pay a deep debt they would not have otherwise incurred. Of course, the house, or in this case the state, wins by taking in big tuition dollars while providing an illusion of a better life at the bar. We hope the Legislature will decline to build this casino.
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