NPR’S MARKETPLACE REPORT

I was interviewed for this brief NPR Marketplace Report airing Wednesday, July 29, 2015: “Should Law Schools Pay If Students Don’t Get Jobs?

Listen all the way to the end, when Dennis Archer, chairman of the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education, offers his defense of the Task Force’s non-response to the current crisis resulting from a dysfunctional system.

ABOUT SANDRA BLAND’S DEADLY ENCOUNTER

“She had been pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.” — The New York Times, July 16, 2015

That’s the most important line in the Sandra Bland story. And it has become lost in the controversy over whether her July 13 death in a Waller County Texas jail cell was suicide. Attention now focuses on her mental state and the marks on her body. But everyone should be taking a closer look at officer Brian T. Encinia and why he stopped Bland in the first place.

Context and Cast of Characters

Bland was black; Encinia is white; Waller County has a notorious history of racism. Encinia was patrolling what The New York Times called “a sleepy state road” that leads from the highway to the entrance of Prairie View A&M University, where more than 80 percent of students are black. In 2004, the district attorney threatened to prosecute Prairie View students from other counties who tried to vote in Waller County. Students and the state’s Republican attorney general thwarted his illegal voter suppression effort.

Bland, a suburban Chicago native, graduated from Prairie View A&M in 2008 and returned to Chicago. On July 10, she accepted a job working with students at her alma mater. Youthful optimism notwithstanding, Bland must have known that she was re-entering hostile territory.

Encinia is 30 years old and has been a Texas state trooper for 19 months. According to a now-deleted Linked-In profile, he took a circuitous route to law enforcement. In 2008, he graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in agricultural leadership and development. Then he joined Blue Bell Creameries where he left his position as an ingredient processing supervisor in 2014. (Blue Bell is now infamous for the nationwide listeria-related recall of its ice cream.) He also worked at the Brenham (TX) Fire Department.

Disturbing Details

A detailed examination of the complete 47-minute dash-cam video from Encinia’s squad car tells far more than the short excerpts airing on television. For starters, Bland’s car had Illinois license plates. To a white local cop in many places throughout America, she was a black out-of-towner worthy of presumptive suspicion.

Also noteworthy is the principal feature of the four-lane road on which Bland drove: it’s desolate. What constructive police work could possibly occupy Encinia’s time there? During the first 15 minutes of the video, only 36 vehicles passed in her direction. Two of them made illegal u-turns — without signaling — and continued on their way.

Through the Looking Glass

After Encinia pulled Bland over, he walked to the passenger side of her car and their interaction began:

Encinia: Hello ma’am. We’re the Texas Highway Patrol and the reason for your stop is because you failed to signal the lane change. Do you have your driver’s license and registration with you? What’s wrong? How long have you been in Texas?

Timeout #1

“How long have you been in Texas?” Encinia’s early question supports my “black driver, out-of-state plate, pull-‘er-over” hypothesis.

Back Through the Looking Glass

Bland: Got here just today.

Encinia: OK. Do you have a driver’s license? (Pause) OK, where you headed to now? Give me a few minutes.

Encinia walked back to his squad car. After making Bland wait a full five minutes, he returned to the driver’s side of her car and said, “OK, ma’am. You OK?”

Bland: I’m waiting on you. This is your job. I’m waiting on you. When’re you going to let me go?

Encinia: I don’t know, you seem very irritated.

Bland: I am. I really am. I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so [inaudible] ticket.

Timeout #2

According to Bland, she was changing lanes to get out of the way of Encinia’s speeding squad car as it approached her car. For that, Encinia pulls her over? Who signals while changing lanes to clear the path for a police car, fire truck or emergency vehicle approaching quickly from behind? Who signals when making a lane change when there are no other cars in sight?

Back Through the Looking Glass 

Encinia: Are you done?

Bland: You asked me what was wrong, now I told you.

Encinia: OK.

Bland: So now I’m done, yeah.

Encinia: You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind?

Bland: I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?

Encinia: Well you can step on out now.

Timeout #3

It’s lawful to smoke in your own car. In fact, I assume Texans’ zeal for individual liberty makes it especially permissible in that state to smoke in your own car — perhaps while cleaning your gun.

Encinia didn’t answer Bland’s question because he couldn’t. There was no legal basis for his request, unless he thought she might use the cigarette as a weapon against him.

Back Through the Looking Glass

Bland: I don’t have to step out of my car.

Encinia: Step out of the car.

Bland: Why am I …

Encinia: Step out of the car!

Bland: No, you don’t have the right. No, you don’t have the right.

Encinia: Step out of the car.

Bland: You do not have the right. You do not have the right to do this.

Encinia: I do have the right, now step out or I will remove you.

Timeout #4

Encinia became defensive about Bland’s denial of a request for which he had no lawful justification (“Would you mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind?”). So he bullied his way into an escalation of the conflict with a new demand (“Step out of the car”). With stunning speed, he lost his temper and started yelling.

The current focus on Bland’s mental history is misplaced; someone should investigate signs of anger, aggressiveness, racism, and generally inappropriate behavior in Encinia’s past. Even more pointedly, it’s worth scrutinizing the process that qualifies someone to become a “peace” officer for the Texas Highway Patrol.

One of my friends specializes in criminal law. Here’s what he tells black clients and friends: if you’re subject to a routine police stop in a white neighborhood, remain in your car so the policeman doesn’t perceive your act of getting out as aggressive. Perhaps Bland had received similar legal advice. Still, once policeman asks you to get out of your car, it’s wise to obey.

Back Through the Looking Glass

Bland: I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself. [crosstalk] I am getting removed for a failure to signal?

Encinia: Step out or I will remove you. I’m giving you a lawful order. Get out of the car now or I’m going to remove you.

Bland: And I’m calling my lawyer.

Encinia: I’m going to yank you out of here. (Reaches inside the car.)

Bland: OK, you’re going to yank me out of my car? OK, alright.

Encinia (calling in backup): 2547.

Bland: Let’s do this.

Encinia: Yeah, we’re going to. (Grabs for Bland.)

Bland: Don’t touch me!

Encinia: Get out of the car!

Bland: Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me! I’m not under arrest — you don’t have the right to take me out of the car.

Encinia: You are under arrest!

Bland: I’m under arrest? For what? For what? For what?

Timeout #5

Encinia didn’t have an answer to her question. As described below, he and a colleague eventually developed one after the incident was over. But Bland knew her constitutional rights, even though Encinia never explained them to her.

Back Through the Looking Glass

A few minutes later, Bland was on the ground and in handcuffs as their exchange continued:

Encinia: You were getting a warning, until now you’re going to jail.

Bland: I’m getting a — for what? For what?

Encinia: You can come read.

Bland: I’m getting a warning for what? For what!?

Encinia then showed her the ticket.

Encinia: Come read right over here. This right here says ‘a warning.’ You started creating the problems.

Timeout #6

After Encinia extracted Bland forcibly from her car without telling her why, wrestled her to the ground, and placed her in handcuffs, he finally revealed that she was just going to get a warning for her supposed failure to signal a lane change. That’s astonishing. If Bland had lived to file a lawsuit against Encinia, she should have won.

Getting His Story Straight

After the incident was over, Encinia spoke with someone on his radio (presumably a supervisor) as they developed an underlying theory to justify his behavior:

“I tried to de-escalate her. It wasn’t getting anywhere, at all. I mean I tried to put the Taser away. I tried talking to her and calming her down, and that was not working….

“Evading arrest or detention. (Inaudible). Resisting arrest … She was detained. That’s the key and that’s why I am calling and asking because she was detained. That’s when I was walking her over to the car, just to calm her down and just to (say) stop.

“That’s when she started kicking. I don’t know if it would be resist or if it would be assault. I kinda lean toward assault versus resist because I mean technically, she’s under arrest when a traffic stop is initiated, as a lawful stop. You’re not free to go. I didn’t say you’re under arrest, I never said, you know, stop, hands up.

“Correct, that did not occur. There was just the assault part…

“Like I said, with something like this, I just call you immediately, after I get to a safe stopping point.

“No weapons, she’s in handcuffs. You know, I took the lesser of the uhh … I only took enough force as I — seemed necessary. I even de-escalated once we were on the pavement, you know on the sidewalk. So I allowed time, I’m not saying I just threw her to the ground. I allowed time to de-escalate and so forth. It just kept getting. (Laughing) Right, I’m just making that clear.”

Sickening and Sad

All of this suggests obvious questions that no one is asking:

— When did Bland fail to signal the lane change that caused Encinia to pull her over?

— Why did Encinia ask Bland to get out of her car? Because she kept smoking her cigarette after he asked her to stop?

— Shortly before Encinia first told Bland that she was under arrest, he grabbed her. But she hadn’t touched him. What was the charge for which he first said he was arresting her?

— What justified Encinia in forcibly removing Bland from her car? Her refusal to obey his dubious order that she get out on her own after refusing to extinguish her cigarette?

— What made Encinia laugh while he was on the car radio as a fellow officer on the scene told Bland she was under arrest for assault on a public servant — the only charge ever lodged against her?

Let’s hope Encinia is under oath when he provides the answers. The testimony of the person who caused him to laugh over the radio should be interesting, too.

Three days later, Sandra Bland was dead. No one is laughing now.

DEAR ABA…

Dear ABA (especially members of the House of Delegates to the upcoming annual meeting in Chicago):

For years, America’s dysfunctional system of financing legal education has produced too many lawyers for too few jobs — and too many law graduates with too much educational debt. A year ago, the ABA created yet another Task Force to consider the problem. The June 17, 2015 Final Report on the Financing of Legal Education embodies the failure of that Task Force’s mission. It now goes to the House of Delegates for approval.

If the Delegates are interested in rehabilitating the ABA’s credibility and restoring public confidence in the profession on an issue of critical importance to the country, they could take this simple step: reject the Task Force Report. That’s right. Rather than giving the typical rubber stamp of approval amid flowery speeches thanking Task Force members for their time and effort in generating a hollow ABA statement summarizing the obvious, the House of Delegates could just say no.

Round One

Some observers had hoped that the ABA’s previous Task Force on the Future of Legal Education might tackle the daunting issues responsible for our dysfunctional legal education market. After all, the ABA’s leaders promised that the 2012 Task Force would make “recommendations to the American Bar Association on how law schools, the ABA, and other groups and organizations can take concrete steps to address issues concerning the economics of legal education and its delivery.”

To its credit, the 2012 Task Force put its toe in those waters, observing that the “system of lending distances law schools from market considerations and it supports pricing practices that do not well serve either the public or private value in legal education.”

Let’s state the problem more bluntly: Marginal law schools are relying on exploding student debt to produce revenue streams that keep them alive. They get away with it because federal student loans come without school-specific accountability for graduates’ dismal employment outcomes. Schools have no financial skin in the game.

But the 2012 Task Force didn’t go beyond identifying the problem because, it said, “The time and resources available to the Task Force have made it impractical to develop a structure of equitable and effective solutions.”

Round Two

So in May 2014, then-ABA president James R. Silkenat announced the creation of a new Task Force — one specifically devoted to the Financing of Legal Education. It was supposed to pick up where the 2012 Task Force had stalled. It was going to “conduct a comprehensive study of the complex economic and political issues involved and produce sound recommendations to inform policymakers throughout the legal community.”

The 2014-2015 Task Force Report recites that 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their total revenues from tuition and that the average for all law school is 69 percent. It also reports that higher tuition has produced more student debt, even as job prospects for graduates of marginal schools have languished.

Since 2006 alone, average student debt has increased by 25 percent (private schools) and 34 percent (public schools) in inflation-adjusted dollars. Average student debt at graduation from private law schools in 2013 was $127,000; for public schools it was $88,000. Meanwhile, only about half of new law graduates are obtaining full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD.

But the new Task Force didn’t pursue this obvious market dysfunction. Instead, its Final Report offers superficial fixes: better debt counseling for students, better disclosure forms from the Department of Education, more dissemination of how schools spend their money, and continued experimentation with law curriculum. They ignore the core financial accountability problem, rather than confronting and addressing it.

Insularity and Self-Interest

The chairman of the 2014-2015 Task Force was Dennis W. Archer, former mayor of Detroit, former Michigan Supreme Court justice, and past president of the ABA. Did the ABA think no one would notice that Archer also chairs of the national policy board of Infilaw — a private equity-owned consortium of three for-profit law schools — Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal.

The Infilaw schools feed on the market dysfunction that the current system for funding legal education creates. The job market for law graduates from schools such as Infilaw’s remains dismal. But even in the face of their graduates’ poor full-time long-term JD-required employment results, Infilaw’s schools increased enrollment and have become leaders in creating debt for their students.

Archer wasn’t the only problematic appointment to the 2014-2015 Task Force. Another member, Christopher Chapman, is president and CEO of Access Group — the collective voice of 197 ABA-accredited law schools.

According to the Access Group’s website, “During the course of our 30+ year existence, we became a leading provider of affordable student loans for aspiring professionals in law, medicine, dentistry, health, business, and other disciplines. As such, we served as a national originator, holder and servicer of federally guaranteed and private, credit-based loans, funding more than $18 billion of education loans since 2001.”

Enough said.

Forfeiting The Right To Be Heard

The fact that, as one 2014-2015 Task Force witness said, legal education may be the “canary in the coal mine” on issues relating to student debt and financing higher education generally is no excuse for the profession to refrain from offering potential solutions.

For that reason, at its upcoming August 3-4 meeting in Chicago, the ABA House of Delegates could reject the Task Force Report. It could then reconstitute the Task Force membership with individuals willing to deliver the tough message that the profession needs. It could direct the newly constituted group to develop meaningful proposals that tie law student loan availability to individual law school outcomes. My recent article in the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, “Bankruptcy and Bad Behavior,” offers one idea that would force law schools to put some financial skin in the game; others have suggested plans warranting serious consideration.

The ABA describes its mission as “committed to doing what only a national association of attorneys can do: serving our members, improving the legal profession, eliminating bias and enhancing diversity, and advancing the rule of law throughout the United States and around the world.”

In a single vote rejecting the 2014-2015 Task Force Report on the Financing of Legal Education, the House of Delegates could match those lofty words with action.

On this vitally important issue, the ABA leadership has caused many attorneys and the general public to become cynical about the organization’s motives. The House of Delegates has a unique opportunity to prove that the ABA is not just the vehicle whereby an insular, self-interested group seeks to preserve the present at the expense of the future. The House of Delegates can be part of the solution, or it can remain part of the problem.

Which path will it choose? The whole legal world is watching.

THE DEWEY TRIAL: FOUR EXAMPLES OF NOT-SO-FUNNY COMIC RELIEF

The ongoing criminal trial against three former leaders of Dewey & LeBoeuf has consumed six weeks. Time flies when you’re having fun. For example:

#1: Funny, If It Weren’t So Sad

For a bunch of smart people, some senior partners did some dumb things. One of the prosecution’s first witnesses was a former member of Dewey’s executive committee who retired at the end of 2010. She had contributed more than $600,000 in capital to the firm and, upon retirement, expected to get it back. Although the partnership agreement permitted the firm to spread the payments to her over three annual installments, she testified that chairman Steve Davis had discretion to accelerate them.

Davis declined her request to do so. Instead, he encouraged her to get a bank loan from Barclays for the full amount and told her that over the subsequent three years the firm would repay the loan for her. She followed his recommendation and borrowed the money.

The firm failed to repay the Barclays loan. She remained on the hook and paid the full amount herself. Adding insult to injury, she lost again when the firm filed for bankruptcy and her $175,000 annual pension disappeared.

#2: Funny, If You Were Not a Fellow Partner

For a bunch of high-powered former Dewey partners who rose to the very top of the firm, titles typically associated with power didn’t mean leadership. Likewise, becoming a member of the firm’s governing structure apparently didn’t result in any duties or responsibilities that involved actual knowledge of the firm’s finances or operations.

For example, during the fifth week of trial, Ralph Ferrara testified that even though he had no equity stake in the firm, he held an impressive title — vice chairman — and had an agreement whereby the firm paid him a salary around $5 million a year. He told the jury that former chairman Steven Davis’ announcement that Ferrara would assume the vice-chairmanship became an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

“I’m embarrassed to say, my ego overcame my good judgment,” Ferrara, a former general counsel of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said on the witness stand.

That line could describe leaders of big law firms everywhere. But it’s a flimsy excuse for abdicating responsibilities that come with power. So is another of Ferrara’s quoted lines: “I’m a practicing lawyer. I’m not a law firm administrator.”

Dewey’s other vice-chairman was Mort Pierce. As the firm was failing and Pierce was jumping ship in 2012, he similarly disclaimed any leadership responsibilities associated with his title and position.

#3: Funny, For a Lawyer

For a bunch of lawyers who make a lot of money advising clients not to write stupid stuff, some of them sure wrote stupid stuff. As the trial plodded through its fifth week, the jury saw these colorful messages from former Dewey partner Alexander Dye:

“Fellas: Time to start spending Momma LeBoeuf’s money like its water.”

“Steve DiCarmine, if you are reading this, I’ll have your f-cking head on a stick.”

During week six, one former executive committee member, Richard Shutran, testified about his internal firm emails, including these nuggets:

“I spend most days bulls–ing people…”

“Do what I do. Work out a lot and do drugs…”

“If he calls me, I’ll kill him…”

A defense attorney for Dewey’s former chief financial officer Joel Sanders had Shutran explain that these were all jokes. Apparently, the strategy is to convince the jury that Shutran’s email jests were part of a culture producing defendants’ supposed email “jokes” about finding “a clueless auditor” and using “fake income” in crafting the firm’s financial statements. Good luck with that one.

#4: Funny, If You’re Not A Juror

At the end of week six, jurors listened as the presiding trial judge, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Robert Stoltz, interrupted Stephen DiCarmine’s defense counsel in mid-question. He wanted counsel to explain a term he was using in cross-examining Dewey’s former budget and planning director:

“What does the phrase ‘unreconciled expense write-off’ mean?”

Riveting.

Only three more months to go.

MY BLOOMBERG INTERVIEW

I’m the subject of a two-part series currently appearing in Bloomberg BNA. Here are the links:

Part I: “At Law Firms, Can Culture Create Value?”

Part 2: “A Client-Centered Approach to Save Big Law From the Robot Apocalypse.

WHEN SUPPORTING A CAUSE UNDERMINES IT

Lee Siegel and The New York Times probably thought they were aiding a vital cause when the Times published Siegel’s June 6 op-ed, “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans.” The underlying issue is important. Many of today’s young people bear the burden of huge educational debt in an economy that has not afforded the kinds of opportunities available to their baby-boomer parents, including Siegel.

Here’s the problem: Siegel did more harm than good. He made himself a poster child for the kind of moral hazard that first led policymakers to render student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy more than 40 years ago. It was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now. But Siegel is exactly the wrong spokesperson for the issue.

Lee Siegel’s Pitch

According to his op-ed, Siegel financed his education with student loans, the first of which he obtained 40 years ago. But when his family’s financial hardship left him unable to pay the full cost of tuition at “a private liberal arts college,” he “transferred to a state college in New Jersey, closer to home.” Eventually, he defaulted on his student loans.

“Years later,” he writes, “I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.”

He urges others to follow his example: default.

Who is Lee Siegel?

Here’s what Siegel and the Times didn’t reveal.

Notwithstanding his transfer to a New Jersey state college, he obtained three degrees from Columbia University — a B.A., an M.A., and a master’s of philosophy. According to the HarperCollins Speakers Bureau website, he’s “an acclaimed social and cultural critic.” The mere fact that he appears on that site means that you should expect to pay big bucks for the privilege of hearing him speak. He has written four books and his essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

In other words, he has an elite education that led to a lucrative career. He is exactly the wrong person to be the face of the student loan crisis — which is very real.

The Problem with Siegel’s Support

Siegel has now made himself a powerful anecdote for those on the wrong side of the fight for reform in financing higher education. Forty years ago, similar ammunition — anecdotes about individuals exploiting moral hazard — led to bad policy when student debt first became non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.

In the early years of the student loan program, the Department of Health, Education & Welfare brought a supposed “loophole” to the attention of the 1973 Congressional Commission on Bankruptcy Laws. Concerned about tarnishing the image of the new program, the Department didn’t want new college graduates embarking on lucrative careers to default on loans that had made their education possible

But there was no hard, numerical evidence suggesting a serious problem. Rather, media hype over a few news reports of “deadbeat” student debtors took on a life of their own. In 1976, Congress yielded to public hysteria and made student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy unless a borrower had been in default for at least five years or could prove “undue hardship.”

In 1990, it extended the default period to seven years. In 1997, the Bankruptcy Reform Commission still had found no evidence supporting claims of systemic abuse, but Congress decided nevertheless that only “undue hardship” would make educational debt dischargeable. That placed it in the same category as child support, alimony, court restitution orders, criminal fines, and certain taxes. In 2005, it extended non-dischargeability to private loans as well.

The Enduring Power of a Big Lie

Unfortunately, the anecdotes and unsubstantiated lore about supposed abuses that led to the current rule persist to this day. In a lead editorial on July 25, 2012, The Wall Street Journal perpetuated the falsehood that “[a]fter a surge in former students declaring bankruptcy to avoid repaying their loans, Congress acted to protect lenders beginning in 1977.” 

There was no such surge. It was “more myth and media hype” than reality. Now, Siegel has provided fuel for a new round of obfuscation to displace facts.

“Thirty years after getting my last [student loan],” Siegel writes, “the Department of Education is still pursuing the unpaid balance.” I hope they catch him.

NOTE: The special ebook sale of my first book, Crossing Hoffa – A Teamster’s Story continues: http://discussions.mnhs.org/10000books/true-crime-e-book-sale/. It’s the true crime saga of my father’s two-year tangle with Jimmy Hoffa from 1959 to 1961.

The Chicago Tribune honored it as one of the “Best Books of the Year.” You can get it at Amazon, bn.com, Google, iTunes, and Kobo.