WHO REALLY PAYS FOR LAW STUDENT DEBT?

More public interest lawyers for our nation’s underserved citizens would be a good thing. More public debt to subsidize law schools that shouldn’t exist at all would be a bad thing.

In recent years, law schools have promoted debt forgiveness programs as a solution to rising student loan obligations. In some important ways, they are. Income-based repayment (IBR) can be a lifeline in a drowning pool of educational debt. It can also open up less remunerative options, including public interest law, for those willing to forego big bucks to avoid big law firms. But now everyone seems surprised to realize that, when all that debt is forgiven years hence, someone will have to pick up the tab.

Well, not quite everyone is surprised. More than two years ago, Professor WIlliam Henderson, one of the profession’s leading observers, saw this train wreck coming. “Unless the government’s actuarial assumptions on student loan repayments turn out to be correct,” Henderson wrote, “federal funding of higher education is on a collision course with the federal deficit.”

Tuition increases without regard to value added

Recently, the Wall Street Journal made that collision a front page story. In “Plans That Forgive Student Debt Skyrocket,” law students took center stage — and for good reason. For a decade, new lawyers have outpaced everyone, even medical students, in the rate at which they have accumulated educational debt.

Am Law columnist Matt Leichter has reported that from 1998 to 2008, private law school tuition grew at an annual rate of almost 3.5 percent, compared to 1.89 percent for medical schools and 2.85 percent for undergraduate colleges. Public law school tuition increased at an even faster pace: 6.71 percent. From 2008 to 2012, median law school debt for new graduates increased by 54 percent — from $83,000 to $128,000. (That compares to a 22 percent increase in medical student debt.)

Market disconnects

What accounts for the law school tuition explosion? For starters, the U.S. News rankings methodology incentivizes deans and administrators to spend money without regard to the beneficial impact on a student’s education. More expenditures per student mean a higher ranking, period.

Who provides that money? Students — most of whom obtain federally backed loans. To that end, the prevailing law school business model requires filling classrooms. As transparency about dismal law graduate employment outcomes has produced fewer applications at most schools, deans generally have responded by increasing acceptance rates. The overall rate for all law schools rose from 56 percent in 2004 to almost 80 percent in 2013.

Sell, sell, sell

As National Law Journal reporter Karen Sloan observed recently, “It’s a tale of two legal education worlds.” Top law schools place 90 percent of their graduates; but “more than three-quarters of ABA accredited law schools — 163 — had underemployment rates of 20 percent or more.”

Those numbers begin to explain what has now become an annual springtime ritual. As I’ve discussed in recent posts, many law school professors and deans at schools producing those underemployed graduates are proclaiming that the lawyer glut is over. Now, they say, is the best time ever to attend law school.

Outside the ivory tower, practicing lawyers know that such hopeful rhetoric isn’t transforming the market or slowing the profession’s structural changes. Last June, NALP Executive Director James Leipold wrote, “There are no indications that the employment situation will return to anything like it was before the recession.”

The most recent ABA employment statistics for the class of 2013 prove Leipold’s point: Nine months after graduation, only 57 percent had obtained long-term-full-time jobs requiring a JD. Median incomes for new graduates aren’t improving much, either. For the class of 2008, it was $72,000; for the class of 2012, it was $61,245.

IBR to the rescue

The vast majority of students borrow six-figure sums to fund their legal education. The federal government backs the loans, which survive bankruptcy. The end result is law schools with no financial skin in a game for which they reap tremendous economic rewards.

IBR is a godsend to many new lawyers who can’t get jobs that pay enough to cover their loans. It permits monthly installments totaling 10 percent of discretionary income (defined as annual income above 150 percent of the poverty level). Outstanding balances are forgiven after 10 years; for private sector workers, it’s 20 years.

Less obvious consequences

IBR has a dark side, too. If a person leaves the program early, total debt will include all accrued interest and principal, often creating a balance larger than the original loans. For those remaining in the program for the requisite 10 or 20 years, forgiven debt becomes taxable income in the year forgiven.

More insidiously for the profession, IBR allows marginal schools to exploit an already dysfunctional market. Such schools are free to ignore the realistic job prospects for their graduates (including JD-required public service positions) as they recruit new students who obtain six-figure loans to pay tuition. When graduates can’t get decent jobs, it’s not the school’s problem. Meanwhile, IBR becomes the underemployed young lawyer’s escape hatch.

The Wall Street Journal reports that graduates are using that hatch in dramatically increasing numbers: “[E]nrollment in the [IBR] plans has surged nearly 40% in just six months, to include at least 1.3 million Americans owing around $72 billion.” Those figures aren’t limited to lawyers, but they undoubtedly include many young graduates from law schools that should have closed long ago.

Bill Henderson probably finds some measure of vindication as a wider audience now frets over a problem that he foresaw years ago. But I know him well enough to believe that for him, like me, four of the least satisfying words in the English language are: “I told you so.”

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.