Idahoans pay a “hidden tax” on legal services because three-quarters of the state’s new lawyers have to study at more expensive out-of-state law schools, forcing them to charge more for their services when they begin practicing, the University of Idaho’s law school dean told lawmakers Wednesday.
“Holding down the number of seats in public legal education does not hold down the number of lawyers,” said Donald Burnett, dean of the University of Idaho College of Law. “It only means that they come in with a higher debt … and then they have to charge their clients more, and that’s a hidden tax on Idaho.”
His comments came as UI President Duane Nellis presented his budget request to the Legislature’s joint budget committee. A key request, to add a second year of law school in Boise, where the UI now offers only third-year classes, isn’t included in Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget.
Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian, said, “We know there’s a need there, but the crux of it is it didn’t score as high as some of the other items within the budget.”
Nellis told lawmakers the third-year Boise program has been “highly successful” and “better prepares students for their professional interests,” linking them to businesses and government agencies in the Treasure Valley.
He said the $400,000 proposal to add a second-year program in Boise would add 40 second-year students, plus expand the third-year program to 40 students. “We believe there’s capacity now … to house those students,” Nellis said. “There’s demand for those students here in the Treasure Valley.”
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked Burnett about national reports that new lawyers are having trouble finding jobs.
“It’s true that applications to law schools are down this year; they have been the last two years,” Burnett replied. But he said that’s because private law school graduates now average more than $125,000 in debt when they graduate, which on top of their undergrad student loan debt doesn’t fit well with the pay at entry-level lawyer jobs, particularly in Idaho.
“That’s why public legal education continues to be very important,” he said. “Our students come out with five-figure debts, not six-figure debts, and they can manage them and they can stay in Idaho. … They can represent communities, they can be public defenders, they can be prosecutors.”
He also noted that law degrees can lead to successful careers for many outside of practicing law, with examples ranging from top corporate CEOs to the current investment manager of Idaho’s state pension system.
Idaho ranks 49th in the nation for its number of lawyers per capita, Burnett said.