ANOTHER UNFORTUNATE OP-ED

The current debate over the future of legal education is critical. Even more important is the need to base that debate on a common understanding of indisputable facts. Perhaps UC-Irvine Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow just made an honest mistake in misreading employment statistics upon which they rely in their April 14, 2014 New York Times op-ed, “Don’t Skimp on Legal Training.” If so, it was a bad one. (The Times designated my comment that includes some of the data cited in this post as a “NYT pick.”)

The offending paragraph comes early in the effort to dismiss those who use the word “crisis” — their op-ed puts it in quotation marks — to describe the challenges facing the profession. Since that word appears prominently in the subtitle of my latest book, I’ll take the bait.

Wrong From The Start

The authors support their “no crisis” argument with this:

“[A]s recently as 2007, close to 92 percent of law-school graduates reported being employed in a paid-full-time position nine months after law school. True, the employment figures had dropped by 2012, the most recent year for which data is [sic] available, but only to 84.7 percent.”

But the data on which they rely include part-time, short-term, and law school funded jobs — and only those graduates “for whom employment status was known.”

“Facts Are Stubborn Things”

Not until 2010 did the ABA require law schools to identify the types of jobs that their graduates actually obtained. The results have been startling, as data from the class of 2013 demonstrate:

– Nine months after graduation, only 57% of graduates had long-term full-time (LT-FT) jobs requiring bar passage. Another 5% held part-time or short-term positions.

– LT-FT “JD Advantage” jobs went to another 10.1%. This category includes positions — such as accountant, risk manager, human resources employee, and more — for which many graduates are now asking themselves whether law school was worth it.

– Another 4% got law school funded jobs.

– Unemployed law graduates seeking jobs increased to 11.2%.

– Average law school debt for current graduates exceeds $100,000. The rate of tuition increase in law schools between 1998 and 2008 exceeded the rate for colleges and medical schools. One reason is that U.S. News ranking criteria reward expenditures without regard to whether they add value to a student’s education.

– For 33 out of 202 ABA-accredited law schools, the LT-FT JD-required employment rate was under 40%; for 13 schools, it was under 33%.

Federally-backed student loans that survive bankruptcy fuel a dysfunctional system that has removed law schools from accountability for graduates’ employment outcomes. The current regime blocks the very “market mechanisms to weed out the weakest competitors” that the authors cite as providing the ultimate cure. As law school applications have plummeted, most schools have responded with soaring acceptance rates.

If all of that doesn’t add up to a crisis, what will it take?

The Importance of Credibility

The problem with the authors’ unfortunate attempt to minimize the situation is its power to undermine their other points that are, in fact, worth considering.

For example, they note that job prospects “obviously depend on where a person went to school and how he or she performed.” True, but many law professors now touting the happy days ahead for anyone currently contemplating law school ignore that reality.

“The cost of higher education, and the amount of debt that students graduate with, should be of concern to all.” True, but what’s their proposed solution?

“Law schools specifically should do more to provide need-based financial aid to students — rather than what most law schools have been doing in recent years, which is to shift toward financial aid based primarily on merit in order to influence their rankings. This has amounted to ‘buying’ students who have higher grades and test scores.” True, but how many schools are changing their ways? Between 2005 and 2010, law schools increased need-based financial aid from $120 million to $143 million while non-need based aid skyrocketed from $290 million to $520 million.

Like almost every law school dean in America, Dean Chemerinsky has a choice. He can acknowledge the crisis for what it is and be part of the solution, or he can live in denial and remain part of the problem. Earlier this year, National Jurist named Chemerinsky its “Most Influential Person in Legal Education.” Now is the time for him to rise to the challenge of that role.

 

DEWEY – PROSECUTING THE VICTIMS

[NOTE: On Friday, April 11 at 9:00 am (PDT), I'll be delivering the plenary address at the Annual NALP Education Conference in Seattle.

On Wednesday, April 16 at 5:00 pm (CDT), I'll be discussing The Lawyer Bubble -- A Profession in Crisis as part of the Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers Section year-long focus on "The Future of the Legal Profession."]

The trip from victim to perpetrator can be surprisingly short. Just ask some former Dewey & LeBoeuf employees who pled guilty for their roles in what the Manhattan District Attorney calls a massive financial fraud. Anyone as puzzled as I was by 29-year-old Zachary Warren’s perp walk last month will find recently unsealed guilty plea agreements in the case positively mind-boggling. In some ways, those agreements are also deeply disturbing, but not for the reasons you might think.

Warren, you may recall, was a 24-year-old former Dewey staffer when he allegedly had the misfortune of attending a New Year’s Eve day meeting in 2008 with two of his superiors. According to the grand jury indictment, they were among the “schemers” who developed a “Master Plan” of accounting fraud that persisted for years.

When Warren left Dewey in 2009 to attend law school, the firm was making hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, many individual partners enjoyed seven-figure paychecks, and no one foresaw the firm’s total collapse three years later. Nevertheless, last month Warren was indicted with three others who had held positions of responsibility right up to the firm’s ignominious end: former chairman Steven H. Davis, former executive director Stephen DiCarmine, and former chief financial officer Joel Sanders.

A fateful New Year’s Eve meeting

The indictment alleges that CFO Sanders was one of two people with Warren at their December 31 meeting. Now we’ve learned the identity of the other: Frank Canellas.

Canellas’ ascent in the firm had been meteoric. While finishing his bachelor’s degree at Pace University, he joined LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in 2000 as a part-time accounting intern. Only seven years later, he became — at the tender age of 28 — director of finance for the newly formed Dewey & LeBoeuf. Thereafter, his compensation increased dramatically, rising to more than $600,000 annually by 2011.

In February 2014, Canellas copped a plea. He agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and plead guilty to a felony charge of grand larceny for his role in allegedly cooking Dewey’s books. In exchange, the DA will recommend a light sentence – only two-to-six years of jail time compared to the 15-year maximum penalty for the offense.

Using the boss to get underlings?

Presumably, one reason that the Manhattan DA squeezed Canellas was to help prove culpability at higher levels of the defunct firm, particularly CFO Sanders. But there is something more troubling here than the use of that standard prosecutorial tactic to get at the higher-ups. In his plea agreement statement, Canellas also implicates downstream employees who, he says, implemented the accounting adjustments that he and his bosses developed.

Ironically, in 2012, the people whom Canellas now fingers were among the hundreds of non-lawyers who suffered the most in the wake of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s spectacular implosion. When that was happening, observers properly regarded the firm’s low-level staffers generally as helpless victims. Now, for some of them, guilty pleas in exchange for recommendations of leniency give new meaning to the phrase “adding insult to injury.”

What’s the point?

Why go after the underlings at all? Does it really take a criminal prosecution coupled with the promise of a plea deal to assure the truthful testimony of pawns in a much larger game? With Canellas on the hook, wouldn’t a trial subpoena do the trick for those working under him?

The policy ramifications are even more profound. What message does the Manhattan DA send by flipping a cooperating superior to nail underlings for doing what the superior asked them to do? What does this approach mean for employees far down the food chain in a big law firm or any other organization? Even if you don’t have an accounting degree, should you now second-guess the bookkeeping directives that you receive from people who do? Then what? Complain to your local district attorney that you have concerns about your instructions? And why draw the line at accounting issues?

For any employee now worried about becoming the target of a subsequent criminal proceeding, other options make even less practical sense. As the economy crashed in 2008 and 2009, was it the low-level staffer’s duty to refuse a directive relating to the firm’s accounting procedures or any other issue that caused the staffer concern? To quit or get fired from a decent job and enter a collapsing labor market? To apply for work elsewhere, only to have a prospective new employer solicit a prior job reference and learn that the would-be hire is not a “team player”?

Losing sight of the mission

Unlike many senior partners at Dewey & LeBoeuf, the six relatively low-level staffers who did as Canellas directed (and have now pled guilty to resulting crimes) did not walk away with millions of dollars. Other than the jobs they held until the firm disintegrated, none benefitted financially from the alleged financial fraud.

The situation brings to mind a November 2012 court filing on behalf of Dewey’s former chairman, Steven H. Davis. Responding to the motion of the Dewey & LeBoeuf Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors for permission to sue Davis personally, Davis’s brief concluded: “While ‘greed’ is a theme of the Committee’s Motion, the litigation that eventually ensues will address the question of whose greed.” (Docket #654; emphasis in original)

The Manhattan DA’s investigative efforts could center on that question, too. So far, as indictments and plea deals get unsealed, the situation looks more like an unrestrained effort to secure notches on a conviction belt.

Perhaps it’s just too early to tell where the prosecution is headed. Then again, maybe vulnerable scapegoats make easier targets than the wealthy, high-powered lawyers who created and benefitted from the culture in which those scapegoats did their jobs.

A DEWEY GUILTY PLEA COULD BECOME MORE THAN ANYONE BARGAINED FOR

Sometimes there’s more to a news story than meets the eye. For example, recent indictments and guilty pleas involving former Dewey & LeBoeuf personnel focus on a handful of individuals who allegedly cooked the firm’s books for years prior to its implosion. The sordid details make for entertaining press conferences and great headlines.

But maybe a more interesting question is: who will be standing naked when the Manhattan DA finishes pulling the threads on that sweater? A careful look at Frank Canellas’ plea agreement suggests some surprising possibilities. But it takes a brief history of the Dewey bankruptcy proceeding to understand some of them. So bear with me.

Remember the PCP?

Back in October 2012, the Dewey & LeBoeuf bankruptcy judge approved a novel Partnership Contribution Plan. For a collective $71.5 million, participating former Dewey partners received releases of creditor claims totaling more than $500 million. That meant creditors could not seek to “clawback” additional amounts that partners received while the firm was insolvent.

When did the firm become insolvent? The PCP answered that question with a specific date, January 1, 2011. A progressive payment table determined each partner’s required contribution based on the amount the partner received from Dewey after that date. Partners who had received $400,000 or less paid back 10 percent of the total. From there, the percentage rose so that partners who had received $3 million or more paid 30 percent. (Former Chairman Steven Davis was not allowed to participate in the plan.)

Remember the 2010 bond offering?

The January 1, 2011 cutoff date was important because Dewey & LeBoeuf’s unusual $150 million bond offering closed in 2010. Under the PCP, any money that participating partners received that year — including proceeds from bond investors and funds from banks that refinanced the firm’s debt — remained off the potential clawback table.

A group of retired Dewey partners objected to the PCP, claiming that its terms favored former firm leaders.  Attorneys for the Dewey bankruptcy estate responded that they had retained an outside professional, Jonathan Mitchell of Zolfo Cooper, who had “controlled the development and promulgation of the PCP.” (Docket #482 at 10) Mitchell worked on the project with David Pauker of Goldin Associates.

Remember the court’s approval of the PCP?

Dewey’s bankruptcy judge overruled objections to the PCP and determined that the January 1, 2011 cutoff date was reasonable. In doing so, he relied in part on Mitchell and Pauker, who testified to the difficulty of efforts aimed at proving that the firm was insolvent earlier:

“Based on investigations of the Debtor’s finances by the Debtor’s professionals, Pauker and Mitchell testified that there was strong evidence to support the assertion that the Debtor was insolvent in 2012, but insolvency would be more difficult to prove for 2011, and even harder for 2010. Determining the exact insolvency date is both difficult and expensive because several complex tests are used, leading to extended expensive litigation as those tests can produce contradictory results.” (10/09/12 Mem. Op. at 23; transcript record citations omitted)

Of particular interest in light of Canellas’ recent guilty plea regarding his role in creating the firm’s financial statements, the court went on to observe: “Further complicating the issue, the firm had a clean audit opinion issued in 2010 and was able to refinance a significant portion of its debt,….” (Id.)

Now things get interesting

Flash forward to March 2014, when the Manhattan DA unseals Canellas’ plea agreement. In his accompanying statement, the former Dewey director of finance says that, far from clean, audit opinions for 2008, 2009, and 2010 were based on financial statements that he knew to be false.

Meanwhile, the Dewey bankruptcy attorneys who persuaded the court to approve the PCP gave way to a liquidating trustee. That trustee is asserting clawback claims against individual partners who refused to participate in the PCP. Those complaints allege that the firm was insolvent no later than January 1, 2009 and seek recovery based on that much earlier date.

Now what?

Here’s another way to look what has happened so far:

1. Lawyers for the Dewey bankruptcy estate presented the court with a plan whereby former Dewey partners returned a percentage of the amounts that they received after January 1, 2011 — but anything they received prior to that date became off limits to Dewey’s creditors. (The court-approved final confirmation plan estimated that general unsecured creditors with claims collectively approaching $300 million would eventually receive between 4 cents and 15 cents for every dollar that the firm owed them.)

2.  A group of objectors claimed that the PCP favored Dewey’s most wealthy and powerful former partners.

3. The court overruled that objection and approved the PCP with its January 1, 2011 cutoff date because, among other reasons, professional advisers to the Dewey estate testified that it was reasonable and the firm got what the court called a “clean” audit for 2010.

4. The Manhattan DA has now indicted four former Dewey employees — and obtained guilty pleas from seven others — for their roles in allegedly cooking the books in ways that, if true, would render the 2010 audit not so clean.

5.  One more thing. According to Canellas’ statement appended to his February 13, 2014 plea agreement, after Dewey filed its bankruptcy petition on May 28, 2012, he continued working for the firm’s wind down committee and, at the time he signed the statement, was still working for Dewey’s liquidating trustee. (The plea agreement required him to resign from that position.)

As you try to wrap your head around all of this, remember that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So think big and follow the money, if you can find it.

In my next post, I’ll discuss another aspect of the Canellas plea agreement that is likewise deeper than the current headlines — and far more troubling.

FALSE ADVERTISING POSING AS LEGAL SCHOLARSHIP

Sometimes everything you need to know about a piece of purported scholarly legal research appears in its opening lines. Take, for example, the first two sentences of “Keep Calm and Carry On” in current issue of The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics:

“Supposedly, there is a crisis in legal education. It appears to be touted mostly by those who are in the business of realizing monetary (or, at least, reputational) gain from providing cost-efficient coverage about matters of (rather) little importance.”

At this point, Professor Rene’ Reich-Graefe’s 15-page article offers the second of its 80 footnotes: “For example, in 2011, The New York Times Company reported annual revenues of $2,323,401,000. Of those, approximately 52.57% (or $1,221,497,000) were raised in advertising revenue…”

So it turns out that the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and every other media outlet reporting on the troubled world of American legal education have manufactured a crisis to sell advertising space. Never mind too many law school graduates for too few JD-required jobs, more than a decade of soaring law school tuition, and crippling student debt. Everyone just needs to calm down.

The argument

Professor Reich-Graefe offers what he calls “a brief exercise in some eclectic apologetics of the present state of legal education for those of us who refuse to become card-carrying members of the contemporary ‘Hysterias-R-Us’ legal lemming movement.” Starting with a Bureau of Labor Statistics report that “lawyer employment jobs in 2010 were at 728,200,” he observes that the United States has an additional 500,000 licensed attorneys and concludes:

“One may safely assume that, at present, a good number (though certainly not all) of those licensed lawyers are gainfully employed, too — mainly within the legal profession.”

Then Reich-Graefe posits trends that he says will favor the legal profession: “Over half of currently practicing lawyers in this country will retire over the next 15 to 20 years”; “U.S. population will increase by over 100 million people, i.e., by one third, until 2060, thus, increasing total demand for legal services”; “the two largest intergenerational wealth transfers in the history of mankind…will occur in the United States over the course of the next 30 to 40 years, thus, increasing total demand for legal services even further”; and “everything in the law, by definition, will continue to change…there will be more work for more lawyers.”

His analysis culminates in a breathless conclusion: “[R]ecent law school graduates and current and future law students are standing at the threshold of the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country — a legal market which will grow, exist for, and coincide with their entire professional career [sic].”

The critique

Others have already dissected Reich-Graefe’s statistical arguments in great detail. Suffice it to say that when law professors wander into the world of numbers, someone should subject their work to peer review before publishing it. But Professor Bill Henderson makes an equally important point: Even if Reich-Graefe’s analysis and assumptions are valid, his advice — “Keep Calm and Carry On” — is dangerous.

I would add this nuance: Reich-Graefe’s advice is more dangerous for some law schools than for others. The distinction matters because law schools don’t comprise a single market. That’s not a value judgment; it’s just true. At Professor Reich-Graefe’s school, Western New England University School of Law, only 37 percent of the graduating class of 2013 obtained full-time, long-term jobs requiring a JD. Compare that to graduate employment rates (and salaries) at top schools and then try to convince yourself that all schools serve the same market for new lawyers.

The dual market should have profound implications for any particular school’s mission, but so far it hasn’t. Tuition at some schools with dismal employment outcomes isn’t significantly less than some top schools where graduation practically assures JD-required employment at a six-figure salary.

Likewise, virtually all schools have ridden the wave of dramatic tuition increases. In 2005, full-time tuition and fees at Western New England was $27,000. This year, it’s $40,000.

Shame on us

Reich-Graefe makes many of us accomplices to his claimed conspiracy against facts and reason. Shame on me for writing The Lawyer BubbleShame on Richard Susskind for writing Tomorrow’s Lawyers. Shame on Bill Henderson for his favorable review of our books in the April 2014 issue of the Michigan Law Review. Shame on Brian Tamanaha, Paul Campos, Matt Leichter, and every other voice of concern for the future of the profession and those entering it.

Deeply vested interests would prefer to embrace a different message that has a noble heritage: “Keep Calm and Carry On” — as the British government urged its citizenry during World War II. But in this context, what does “carry on” mean?

“Carry on” how, exactly?

Recently on the Legal Whiteboard, Professor Jerry Organ at St. Thomas University School of Law answered that question: filling classrooms by abandoning law school admission standards. Ten years ago, the overall admission rate for applicants was 50 percent; today it’s almost 80 percent. That trend line accompanies a pernicious business model.

It’s still tough to get into top a law school; that segment of the market isn’t sacrificing student quality to fill seats. But most members of the other law school market are. They could proceed differently. They could view the current crisis as an opportunity for dramatic innovation. They could rethink their missions. They could offer prospective students new ways to assess realistically their potential roles as attorneys while providing a practical, financially viable path for graduates to get there.

Alternatively, they can keep calm and carry on. Then they can hope that on the current field of battle they’re not carried off — on their shields.

DEWEY & LE BOEUF: MORE COLLATERAL DAMAGE

Does 29-year-old Zachary Warren hold the key to understanding the demise of the storied white-shoe law firm, Dewey & LeBoeuf’? Apparently, New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. thinks so.

Zachary Who?

In 2006, Warren graduated from Stanford University with a degree in international relations. In 2008, he went to work for Dewey & LeBoeuf as a client relations manager; it was his first job out of college. His work at Dewey, Am Law Daily’s Sara Randazzo reports, was “to pester partners to make sure clients paid their bills, according to two former Dewey employees.” That, by the way, is an annual ritual at every big firm, and it’s no fun.

When Warren started at Dewey, he was 24 years old. After spending his “gap year” there, he attended Georgetown Law where he served on the law review. After graduation, he took a federal district court clerkship in Maryland. Then he accepted another clerkship that he still has for Judge Julia Smith Gibbons on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Having left Dewey three years before its demise, Warren must have found it odd when Vance’s office called to discuss the firm’s failure. Most people who once worked at the firm would have been surprised, too. They’d never heard of Zachary Warren until last week, when he was indicted, along with three more familiar Dewey names — Steven Davis, Stephen DiCarmine, and Joel Sanders, respectively, the firm’s last chairman, executive director, and chief financial officer.

An Observer’s Perilous Plight

What did Warren do to merit inclusion with such a powerful and notorious threesome, thereby creating a foursome that the indictment identifies collectively as the “Schemers”? Based on the allegations of the 106-count indictment, not much.

On or about December 30, 2008 — the end of the first full calendar year of operation following the blockbuster merger of Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf Lamb — Warren’s boss, CFO Joel Sanders, allegedly told him that he would receive his full bonus “if the Firm satisfied its bank covenants.” The indictment doesn’t say whether Warren knew what that phrase meant.

The following day, the indictment alleges, Warren sat in a meeting with Sanders and an unnamed “Employee C” while Sanders and Employee C discussed “financial adjustments.” That evening — New Year’s Eve at 7:24 pm, to be precise — Employee C wrote to Warren: “Great job, dude. We kicked ass! Time to get paid.”

Twelve minutes later, Warren responded, “Hey man, I don’t know where you come up with some of this stuff, but you saved the day. It’s been a rough year but it’s been damn good. Nice work dude. Let’s get paid!”

Finally, two months after that, on February 24, 2009, Warren supposedly responded falsely to a message from a Dewey employee about an allegedly inappropriate financial adjustment in 2008.

Only one of the 106 counts against the “Schemers” includes Warren. It is #106 and is a bit confusing: “CONSPIRACY IN THE FIFTH DEGREE… as follows: The defendants…during the period from on or about November 3, 2008, to on or about March 7, 2012, with intent that conduct constituting the crime of SCHEME TO DEFRAUD IN THE FIRST DEGREE be performed, such crime being a felony, agreed with one and more persons to engage in and cause the performance of such conduct.” I’m not sure where to put the “[sic].”

Warren has another distinction: He is also the subject of his own, separate indictment, alleging six counts of falsifying business records.

The Awesome Power of Government

To understand what is happening to Zachary Warren — a millennial whose first dream job has turned into a nightmare — look no farther than prosectuor Vance’s press conference. He announced that seven former employees who worked in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s accounting department have already pled guilty “for their individual roles in the scheme.”

That’s how these things work. Government investigators start at the bottom of an organization, identify low-level employees who might know something, apply pressure, and acquire guilty pleas that create cooperating witnesses who can testify against the real targets. Indicting a low-level person can also have an in terrorem effect, demonstrating to others the government’s seriousness.

I’ve never met or communicated with Zachary Warren. But as with any attorney, a plea deal poses special problems that don’t affect non-lawyers. Reportedly, Warren passed the bar last July. Among other things, a guilty plea could end forever his ability to practice law. That would be a tough way to close out an investment of five years (law school plus two clerkships) and $150,000 in tuition.

Abandoning Common Sense

Warren’s co-defendants may have something to say about whether any crime occurred at all. The presumption of innocence has not yet lost all meaning. Still, some aspects of the case against Zachary Warren, seem particularly peculiar.

“Pestering partners at year-end to get clients to pay outstanding bills” is not exactly a policy-making position. How can anyone who worked in the bureaucratic bowels of a big firm for less than a year bear responsibility for what went wrong three years later? Should low-ranking administrative staff members everywhere start asking questions about what superiors want them to do and why? How should they assess the answers? When should they resign in protest?

Likewise, when Warren left Dewey in 2009, the partnership collectively was making hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. At the time, no one in the profession could have foreseen the firm’s disastrous demise in 2012. And before making too much of the juicy emails allegedly attributed to Zachary Warren, please pause, add a little context, and consider how all of us sometimes fire off quick, mindless responses to emails and text messages.

Most importantly, think about how you’d feel if someone you knew found himself in Zachary Warren’s position. Twenty-four years old and only months into his first job after college, he participated in an end-of-the-year revenue collection meeting with superiors. More than five years later, that meeting led to a “perp walk” with three codefendants, any of whom could have made or broken his career at Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Then think about the government’s awesome power to turn lives upside down in a pursuit that Warren’s lawyer called a “travesty.” You might conclude that he has a point. Anyone truly interested in what went wrong at Dewey & LeBoeuf should take a look at Chapter 8 of The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in CrisisThen you’ll really wonder why Zachary Warren is part of this mess.

THE END OF THE LAWYER GLUT?

Could a years-long oversupply of new attorneys finally be on the wane? Based on the trend of recent headlines, it would be easy to reach that conclusion. For example, a December 2013 Wall Street Journal headline read: “First-Year Law School Enrollment at 1977 Levels.” The first sentence of the article described the “plunge” in entering law student enrollments.

Likewise, in January 2014, National Jurist reported on steep enrollment declines at particular schools from 2010 to 2013. The big losers in that compilation were “the University of LaVerne (down 66.2 percent) and Thomas M. Cooley Law School (down 40.6 percent).”

Most recently, the National Law Journal took a closer look at the 13 law schools that saw “1L enrollment drop by 30 percent or more in the span of 12 months, while an additional 27 reported declines of 20 to 30 percent in all.”

Taken together, these reports create an impression that the severe lawyer glut is ending.

How about a job?

For prospective law students, the size of any drop in overall enrollment isn’t relevant; employment prospects upon graduation from a particular school are. According to the ABA, just under 40,000 students began law school in the fall of 2013 — down eight percent from the entering class of 2012. That’s significant, but not all that dramatic.

Meanwhile, for the entire decade ending in 2022, the latest estimate (December 2013) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the total number available positions for “Lawyers, judges, and related workers” at around 200,000. That net number takes into account deaths, retirements, and other departures from the profession. More sobering, it’s yet another downward revision from earlier BLS projections.

As the profession makes room for 20,000 new attorneys a year, why all the media attention about 1L enrollments “plunging” to a level that is still almost twice that number?

I think the answer is that some law professors are running around screaming that their hair is on fire because, for many of them, it is. The media are covering that blaze, but the larger conflagration surrounding the crisis in legal education somehow gets lost.

U.S. News to the rescue?

Professor Jerry Organ at the University of St. Thomas School of Law has an interesting analysis of the situation. Schools in trouble are “picking their poison.” One option is to maintain admission standards that preserve LSAT and GPA profiles of their entering classes. Alternatively, they can sacrifice those standards in an effort to fill their classrooms and maximization tuition revenues.

U.S. News & World Report rankings now have an ironic role in this mess. For decades, rankings have contributed to perverse behavioral incentives that have not served law schools, students, or the profession. For example, in search of students with higher LSATs that would improve a ranking, many schools diverted need-based financial aid to so-called “merit scholarships” for those with better test scores.

Likewise, revenue generation also became important in the U.S. News calculus. As the ABA Task Force Report on the Future of Legal Education notes, the ranking formulas don’t measure “programmatic quality or value” and, to that extent, “may provide misleading information to students and consumers.” They also reward “increasing a school’s expenditures for the purpose of affecting ranking, without reference to impact on value delivered or educational outcomes.”

Now the rankings methodology has presented many schools with a Hobson’s choice: If they preserve LSAT/GPA profiles of their entering classes, they will suffer a reduction in current tuition dollars as class size shrinks; if they admit less qualified applicants, they’ll preserve tuition revenues for a while, but they’ll suffer a rankings decline that will hasten their downward slide by deterring applicants for the subsequent year.

As some schools become increasingly desperate, they will be tempted to recruit those who are most vulnerable to cynical rhetoric about illusory prospects on graduation. The incentive for such mischief is obvious: However unqualified such students might be for the profession, the six-figure loans they need to finance a legal education are available with the stroke of a pen. Revenue problem solved.

Some law professors argue that the trend of recent declines in enrollment is sufficient to create a shortfall in law school graduates by 2015. Maybe they’re right. Time will tell — and not much time at that.

I think it’s more likely that over the next decade, a lot of law professors will find themselves looking for work outside academia. Meanwhile, their best hope could be to run out the student loan program clock long enough for them to retire. Then it all becomes someone else’s problem.