A TROUBLESOME TASK FORCE

For any lawyer, credibility is everything. A key reason that the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education produced such a worthwhile report and recommendations was the stature and credibility of its participants, especially its chairman, retired Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. Although imperfect, the effort and outcome have received widespread and well-deserved praise.

On a vitally important issue, the Task Force punted. With respect to the cost and financing of legal education, a new ABA task force has now stepped into that breach. Unlike its predecessor, the ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education has a credibility problem at the outset.

The Best Intentions

The chairman of the new task force, Dennis W. Archer, is undoubtedly a decent man trying to the right thing. In fact, he has an impressive history of public service. But as a former associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Archer understands that appearances matter. In fact, the mere appearance of impropriety in a case is enough for a judge to step aside. It’s not a question of personal ethics. Rather, it’s a matter of public perceptions about the integrity of a decision-making process and its outcomes.

Since 2010, Archer has been a member of the National Policy Board of InfiLaw, which owns three private ABA-accredited for-profit law schools: Arizona Summit Law School (formerly the Phoenix Law School), Charlotte School of Law, and the Florida Coastal School of Law. The board on which he sits “provides counsel upon the strategic direction and long-term plans for the InfiLaw system of independent law schools….”

The Business Model

Annual tuition and fees at all three InfiLaw schools exceed $40,000. According to their ABA disclosures, the schools have been big beneficiaries of the current dysfunctional system of financing a legal degree. At Arizona Summit, median federal law student debt between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013 was $184,825. At Florida Coastal, it was $162,549. The Charlotte Law School median was $155,697, plus another $20,018 in private loans.

At all three law schools, students’ “institutional financial plan debt” was zero. The InfiLaw schools have plenty of federal student loan dollars skin in the game, but none of their own.

A Disturbing Trend

Even as the market for lawyers has languished, InfiLaw schools increased enrollment. According to the ABA, the three schools graduated a combined class of 679 students in 2011. Nine months later, only 256 had long-term, full-time jobs requiring a JD. That’s 38 percent.

Last year’s combined graduating class for the three school had soared to 1,191 students. Only 428 found full-time long-term JD-required employment. That’s 36 percent.

All of the schools’ websites follow the format of Arizona Summit’s rosier description of employment outcomes:

“Arizona Summit Law School was able to confirm the employment status of 99% (278 out of 279) of its program completers [sic] who graduated September 1, 2012, through August 31, 2013. The job placement rate for these graduates was 90%. This figure was calculated using the NALP formula for calculating job placement rate. Therefore, the 90% job placement rate was calculated by adding together all the employed graduates (250) and then dividing by the number of graduates whose employment status we were able to confirm (278). In accordance with NALP guidelines, the number of employed graduates includes all employment positions, including legal and non-legal positions, permanent and temporary positions, full-time and part-time positions, and any positions funded by Arizona Summit Law School.”

Clicking to another document on the site reveals that 25 of those jobs were “Law School Funded Positions” — 22 of which were short-term.

The Challenge of Leadership

Perhaps it takes an insider, such as former Justice Archer, to accomplish the kind of monumental change that his InfiLaw constituents may well resist. Perhaps this will be a “Nixon goes to China” moment for him and the profession. Maybe it will be the equivalent of President Lyndon Johnson muscling civil rights legislation through the Senate — a Texan overcoming a resistant South in the 1960s.

On the other hand, if the latest ABA task force produces anything less than revolutionary recommendations that finally make law schools financially accountable for the fate of their graduates, everyone will laugh it off — as they should. Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly funny about the situation.

3 thoughts on “A TROUBLESOME TASK FORCE

  1. “For any lawyer, credibility is everything.” So says the author, who coincidentally is paid by a law school that charges $54,764, has grown fattest off the loan bubble, and which hires its own grads to make the employment numbers better. Pot, meet kettle.

    The Committee has several people on it with far more powerful conflicts of interest than Justice Archer, including three highly paid law school deans (Moran, Bierman, Wilcox), a full-time professor (Schrag), a university provost (Schmoke), and an employee of a law school consortium (Chapman) — all of whom (unlike Justice Archer) have their incomes entirely dependent on student loans. Two more, like Archer, are on law school and university boards (Liu, Curry). I’m not saying that these conflicts raise questions about the good faith of the members. On the contrary, I have no idea how one could even investigate the subject without having interested parties involved. Given the vast growth of for-profit education in this country, and its popularity with students, having someone involved who knows something about it strikes me as good. Somebody out there has to train the people who provide individual legal services, and it’s surely not Northwestern and its kind.

    Readers should also beware of litigators who lump three schools together and then pick one as illustrative. You can pretty much bet that the one they choose is the one that best fits their thesis. Readers should go take a look at Charlotte’s information. Given that virtually none of their students have 165/3.5 entering credentials, their bar passage rates and employment figures are impressive. Moreover, they should compare Arizona Summit’s figures with a non-profit institution of the same rank and decide whether or not money-grubbing InfiLaw is doing a better or worse job than their altruistic counterparts in the nonprofit world.

    • 1. For 20 years, I have been a volunteer adjunct faculty member in Northwestern Law School’s Trial Advocacy and Legal Ethics classes. During that entire time. the Law School has paid me nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. In 2008, when I began teaching an advanced undergraduate seminar in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, the college paid me a nominal stipend that is less than my annual charitable contribution to the school.

      2. Anyone who has read my book, “The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis,” knows that I have no reluctance to criticize Northwestern. In my opinion, former Dean David Van Zandt became a poster child for schools that pander to misguided metrics, such as U.S. News rankings methodology. Dean Rodriguez has already moved the school in a different and better direction.

      3. I agree that other Task Force Committee members have conflicts as well. Multiple wrongs don’t make a right. Indeed, it’s not simply a question of “involving someone who knows something about” the salient issues. Rather, your description of the membership suggests that the Committee seems stacked in favor of those with vested interests in the current dysfunctional system. Does the Committee include any significant representation from critics? I don’t see it.

      4. I aggregate the data for all three InfiLaw schools because, after all, former Justice Archer serves on the National Policy Board for the entire InfiLaw system. My post includes links to each InfiLaw school, as well as to the ABA website that reports school results individually. To save everyone the trouble, disaggregation doesn’t help whatever argument Mr. Snyder is making.

      From 2011 to 2013:

      Arizona Summit’s graduating class size grew from 131 to 279. Full-time long-term JD-required employment for the class of 2013 was 45 percent.

      Charlotte Law School’s graduating class size increased from 97 to 350. Full-time long-term JD-required employment for the class of 2013 was 37 percent. Mr. Snyder regards that as “impressive.” I don’t, unless he means in a bad way. The same is true for the school’s most recent first-time bar passage rates: 57.8 percent in July 2013 and 60.0 percent in February 2014 — well below the North Carolina state average rate.

      Florida Coastal’s graduating class size increased from 451 to 562. Full-time long-term JD-required employment for the class of 2013 was 31 percent.

      5. If Mr. Snyder’s complaint is that I list “Law School/University Funded Positions” only for Arizona Summit because it “best fits my thesis,” he’s wrong. My only thesis was to reveal that the standard employment description on all of the InfiLaw school website invites the reader to see a big and reassuring number: “The placement rate for these graduates was 90 percent.” But the important details appear elsewhere.

      If my thesis had been that InfiLaw employs large percentages of recent graduates to reach such superficially lofty rates, Charlotte would have been a better fit. For the class of 2013, it hired 45 of its 350 graduates (13 percent); Arizona Summit hired 25 (9 percent); Florida Coastal hired 46 (8 percent).

      6. Long ago, plenty of nonprofit law schools should have gone out of business. They continue to exist because a dysfunctional market absolves law schools from financial accountability for outcomes while saddling students with stunning debt. Now, marginal law schools are staying in business by selling prospective students the hope that IBR might someday bail them out.

  2. Market place irrelevancy will take of care of this, but not before many lives are destroyed by ruinous student loan debt for a worthless law degree that will not lead to a job.

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