Recently I wondered how high law school tuition could go. That raises an issue of whether those paying tuition are getting what they pay for. One way to think about that question is to look at how law schools use their tuition income (probably a better way to answer the question would be to focus on law school outputs, but I’m not going to address that today). A major component of law school expenses is salaries, including faculty salaries. In recent years it has become difficult to learn what faculty salaries are. Once upon a time, the American Bar Association collected information about faculty salaries and made that information available to law schools. But the Department of Justice antitrust consent decree put an end to that practice. The Society of American Law Teachers used to publish some information about salaries on its web site, but it is apparently unable to obtain information about many schools. A couple of state schools make salaries public, but most do not, and the ones that do are probably not representative, though it is impossible to be certain. Consequently, those who wish to know about law faculty salaries—which includes law professors themselves, and perhaps law students or the merely curious--have been unable to learn much about those salaries.
But another source for faculty salary information exists, though it has significant limits. Non-profit institutions are required by federal law to file a form with the IRS, called Form 990. These forms are posted on the web at www.guidestar.org (free registration required). The Form 990s oblige institutions to list their five highest paid employees. That list includes law professors and deans at many schools—typically standalone law schools and universities without medical schools (medical schools usually have personnel whose salaries far exceed that of law professors, which means that at most elite law schools the Form 990 doesn’t include law professors). Even in schools where few or no faculty members are listed, the Form 990 tells you the ceiling for the remaining employees (that is, they make no more than the fifth highest-paid person listed). The forms are usually filed well after the year to which they pertain, so for most institutions the most recent forms available are for the 2005-2006 fiscal year, or about two years ago.
If you want to know who the highest-paid employees of a particular institution were back then, go to Guidestar, search for the institution, click your way to the report, and then click on the Form 990 that you wish to examine. Income information is usually somewhere between pages seven and fifteen.
So are the salary numbers too high (at the schools about which we have information)? My own biased view is that they are not, at least at the schools whose numbers I’ve looked at (my view is biased because even though my salary is, unfortunately, nowhere near the top five at my institution, I obviously have an interest in arguing for higher faculty salaries). The Form 990s report the pay for the highest-paid employees, a list which presumably is dominated by those who would be most likely to be of interest to the considerably higher-paid private sector. Yes, the life of a lawyer in private practice is different from the life of a law professor, but many law professors have opportunities to consult for substantial sums while still living the life of a law professor. Professors choosing between devoting their time to law school pursuits or consulting, say, will have an easier time foregoing the substantial remuneration for consulting if they feel they are earning a comfortable enough living writing. If schools value the activities faculty members engage in, they have to give them an incentive to choose those activities (all of this ignores the question of whether the activities law professors pursue actually benefit those who are paying tuition (typically, students and their families), a question as to which there is considerable debate (e.g., do students benefit when professors write papers on esoteric subjects not covered in the classroom)).
Even if you think the salary numbers are high, it would probably be a mistake to assume that increases in salaries are driving soaring tuition. My impression, based on incomplete information, is that law school salaries have risen much more slowly than tuition. It appears that law schools have used much of the increased tuition to fund scholarships, smaller classes (especially as the number of clinics has increased), computer technology, and the like---and all those expenditures benefit students. I’m told that the cost of library materials has also increased dramatically. If faculty salaries were lower, law schools could certainly charge lower tuitions (which is not the same thing as saying that they would—they might simply use the money for other purposes), but tuition would still be higher than it once was.