THE DANGEROUS MILLION-DOLLAR DISTRACTION

A new study, renamed “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” is the latest effort to defend a troubled model of legal education. It’s especially disheartening because, before joining Seton Hall University School of Law in 2010, co-author Michael Simkovic was an associate at Davis, Polk & Wardwell in 2009-2010. At some level, he must be aware of the difficulties confronting so many young law graduates.

Nevertheless, Simkovic and co-author Frank McIntyre (Rutgers Business School) “reject the claim that law degrees are priced above their value” (p. 41) and “estimate the mean pre-tax lifetime value of a law degree as approximately $1,000,000 (p. 1).”

As the academic debate over data and methodology continues, some professors are already relying on the study to resist necessary change. That’s bad enough. But my concern is for the most vulnerable potential victims caught in the crosshairs of the “Million Dollar Law Degree” media headlines taken from the article’s original title: today’s prelaw students. If they rely on an incomplete understanding of the study’s limitations to reinforce their own confirmation bias in favor of pursuing a legal career primarily for financial reasons, they make a serious mistake.

The naysayers are wrong?

The study targets respected academics (including Professors Herwig Schlunk, Bill Henderson, Jim Chen, Brian Tamanaha, and Paul Campos), along with “scambloggers” and anyone else arguing that legal education has become too expensive while failing to respond to a transformation of the profession that is reducing the value of young lawyers in particular. Professors Campos and Tamanaha have begun responses that are continuing. [UPDATE: Tamanaha’s latest is here.] Professor Brian Leiter’s blog has become the vehicle for Simkovic’s answers.

One obvious problem with touting the $1 million average is that, for the bimodal distribution of lawyer incomes, any average is meaningless. Professor Stephen Diamond offered a rebuttal to Campos that Simkovic endorsed, calculating the net lifetime premium at the median (midpoint) to be $330,000 over a 40-year career. That might be closer to reality. But a degree that returns, at most, a lifetime average of $687 a month in added value for half of the people who get it isn’t much of an attention-getter. As noted below, even that number depends on some questionable assumptions and, at the 25th percentile, the economic prospects are far bleaker.

Causation

In the haze of statistical jargon and the illusory objectivity of numbers, it’s tempting to forget a fundamental point: statisticians investigate correlations. Even sophisticated regression analysis can’t prove causation. Every morning, the rooster crows when the sun rises. After isolating all observable variables, that correlation may be nearly perfect, but the crowing of the rooster still doesn’t cause the sun to rise.

Statistical inference can be a useful tool. But it can’t bridge the many leaps of faith involved in taking a non-random sample of 1,382 JD-degree holders — the most recent of whom graduated in 2008 (before the Great Recession) and 40 percent of whom have jobs that don’t require a JD — and concluding that it should guide the future of legal education in a 1.5 million-member profession. (p. 13 and n. 31)

Caveats

Simkovic and McIntyre provide necessary caveats throughout their analysis, but potential prelaw students (and their parents) aren’t likely to focus on them. For example, with respect to JD-degree holders with jobs that don’t require a JD, they “suggest” causation between the degree and lifetime income premiums, but admit they can’t prove it. (p. 25)

Likewise, they use recessions in the late 1990s and early 2000s as proxies for the impact of the Great Recession on current law graduates (compared to bachelor’s degree holders) (p. 32), minimizing the importance of recent seismic shifts in the legal profession and the impact on students graduating after 2008. (Simkovic graduated in 2007.)

This brings to mind the joke about a law professor who offers his rescue plan to others stranded on a deserted island: “First, assume we have a boat…” The study finesses that issue with this qualification: “[P]ast performance does not guarantee future returns. The return to a law degree in 2020 can only be known in 2020.” (p. 38)

Similarly, the results assume: 1) total tuition expense of $90,000 (presumably including the present value cost of law school loan interest repayments; otherwise, that number is too low and the resulting calculated premium too high); 2) student earnings during law school of $24,000; 3) graduation from law school at age 25 (no break after college); and 4) employment that continues to age 65. (pp. 39-41) More pessimistic assumptions would reduce the study’s calculated premiums at all income levels. At some point below even the Simkovic-McIntyre 25th percentile, there’s no lifetime premium for a JD.

Conclusions

After a long list of their study’s “important limitations” — including my personal favorite, the inability to “determine the earnings premium associated with attending any specific law school” — the authors conclude: “In sum, a law degree is often a good investment.” (p. 50) I agree. The more important inquiry is: When isn’t it?

In his Simkovic-endorsed defense of the study, Professor Diamond offers a basic management principle: any positive net present value means the project should be a go. But attending law school isn’t an aggregate “project.” It’s an individual undertaking for each student. After they graduate, half of them will remain below the median income level — some of them far below it.

The authors dismiss Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections (pp. 6-7), but it’s difficult to ignore current reality. In 2012 alone, law schools graduated 46,000 new attorneys. For that class, nine months out only 10 percent of law schools (20 out of 200) had long-term full-time JD-required job placement rates exceeding 75 percent. The overall JD-job placement average for all law schools was 56 percent.

Some of the remaining 44 percent will do other things because they have no realistic opportunity for legal careers. Financially, it could even turn out okay for a lot of them. (In that respect, you have to admire the boldness of the authors’ footnote 8, citing the percentage of Senators and CEOs with JDs.)

But with better information about their actual prospects as practicing attorneys, how many would have skipped their three-year investments in a JD and taken the alternative path at the outset? That’s the question that the Simkovic/McIntyre study doesn’t pose and that every prospective law student should consider.

More elephants in the room 

Notwithstanding the economic benefits of a JD that many graduates certainly enjoy, attorney career dissatisfaction remains pervasive, even among the “winners” who land the most lucrative big firm jobs. That leads to the most important point of all. Anyone desiring to become an attorney shouldn’t do it for the money. Even the Simkovic/Mcntyre study with its many questionable assumptions proves that for thousands of graduates every year the money will never be there.

But the authors are undoubtedly correct about one thing: “The data suggests [sic] that law school loans are profitable for the federal government.” (p. 46) Law schools like them, too.

It doesn’t take a multiple regression analysis to see the problems confronting the legal profession — but it can be used to obscure them.

BONUS TIME – 2012

It’s always interesting when two respected legal writers approach the same story in different ways. That happened in the coverage of recently announced associate bonuses.

Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal penned an article in the November 27 print edition of the paper that ran under this headline:

“Cravath Sends Cheer — Law Firm Lifts Bonuses for Some Associates as Much as 60%”

As always, Jones accurately reports what is true, namely, that Cravath, Swaine & Moore led this year’s associate bonus announcements with an increase over last year’s base bonus levels. Five paragraphs in, he acknowledges that this significant bump still leaves associates well below the 2007 pay scale. The highest associate bonuses this year are $60,000, compared to $110,000 for combined regular and special bonuses in 2007.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times…

On the same day that Ashby Jones’s article ran in the WSJ, Peter Lattman at the New York Times was a bit more circumspect. In that paper’s print edition, the bold line that ran in the middle of the story reads:

“[Cravath’s] year-end awards set the bar for others, and the payouts are up a bit in 2012.”

Like Jones, Lattman observes that base bonus amounts are substantially higher than previously. But he correctly notes that “when spring bonuses are added to the equation, there has been little increase for Cravath’s associates over the last two years. The law firm did not award spring bonuses in 2012, but last year paid its associates a small stipend in addition to a year-end award. When 2011’s spring bonuses and year-end bonuses are added together, total bonus compensation actually exceeds this year’s level.”

Both Jones and Lattman report that Cravath had $3.1 million in average partner profits for 2011. For perspective, that’s slightly above the $3.05 average for 2006, and not all that far from the $3.3 million all-time high in 2007. Needless to say, associate bonuses haven’t enjoyed a similar recovery. But depending on what happens in the spring, they still could, which leads to a final point.

Who’s right?

The answer is Elie Mystal over at Above the Law. Mystal observes that spring bonuses more properly belong in the analysis of total compensation for the immediately preceding calendar year. That is, a bonus paid in early 2011 is really compensation for 2010.

The analysis is straightforward. Big law firms waiting for more complete information on how the fiscal year will end preserve flexibility by lowballing the November bonus numbers. Evidently, Cravath concluded that its $3.1 million average partner profits for 2011 were inadequate to justify any significant spring bonus for associates in early 2012.

The fate of the “special” bonus

The question now is whether spring bonuses are gone forever. After all, they first appeared as “special bonuses” — meaning that they came with this implied caveat: don’t build those dollars into next year’s expectations. Of course, that message has landed on deaf ears. But it gives firm leaders a way to convince themselves that it’s fair to leave associate compensation far below 2007 levels, even though average partner profits have recovered almost completely to those lofty heights. Indeed, some firms have even bested their pre-recession records.

In all of this, two things are working against associates who dream of a return to the good old days (of 2007). First, the glut of attorneys grows as the demand for new associates shrinks. Second, most law firm leaders are dealing with a revolution of rising expectations among senior equity partners. The potential loss of a rainmaker strikes fear in the hearts of many firm leaders.

But here’s a reason to hope. True visionaries seeking long-term institutional stability let such troublemakers walk. They promote cultural values that transcend the impact on the current year’s income statement. They let resulting gains in client service and attorney morale produce ample financial and non-financial rewards for all.

And all of this reveals itself in how partners at the top of a firm treat associates at the bottom — a place where too many seem to have forgotten that they themselves once stood.

BAD NUMBERS REVEALING WORSE TRENDS

By now, everyone interested in the job prospects for new lawyers has seen two recent headline items:

— Nine months after graduation, only 55 percent of the class of 2011 had full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree, and

— The median starting salary for all employed attorneys in the class of 2011 has dropped to $60,000 — from $72,000 only two years earlier.

The New York City Bar Association just formed a task force to wring its hands over the lawyer oversupply crisis — as if it were something new. A closer analysis of the salary data reveals several underlying realities that are even worse than that declining number suggests.

Digging deeper

For example, NALP’s press release about the median salary number came with this concluding sentence: “Salary information was reported for 65% of graduates reported to be working full-time in a position lasting at least one year.” If that means 35 percent of such workers with full-time jobs didn’t report their salary information, then the published median probably overstates the actual number — perhaps by a lot.

more detailed breakdown reveals that for the class of 2011, the $40,000 to $65,000 category accounted for 52 percent of all reported salaries. Compare that to the class of 2009: Two years ago, starting salaries of between $40,000 and $65,000 accounted for 42 percent of reported salaries. Today, more new lawyers are working for less money, but they’re still the lucky ones — law graduates who got full-time jobs.

The trend in law firm starting salaries is more dramatic: The median starting salary for law firms of all sizes dropped from $130,000 in 2009 to $85,000 in 2011.

Whither big law?

Two more bits of information offer some insight into what’s happening in the biggest law firms:

Only eight percent of 2011 graduates landed jobs in big firms of more than 250 attorneys.

— Entry level jobs that paid $160,000 a year accounted for only 16 percent of reported salaries in 2011. Even for the class of 2009 — graduating into the teeth of the Great Recession and widespread big firm layoffs — the $160,000 category accounted for 25 percent of reported salaries. And the 2009 denominator was bigger: 19,513 reported salaries v. 18,630 salaries in 2011. Importantly, the decline hasn’t resulted because big law firms have reduced their starting salaries; most haven’t.

Rather, as NALP’s Executive Director James Leipold explains, “[T]he downward shift in salaries is not, for the most part, the result of individual legal employers paying new graduates less than they paid them in the past. Although some firms have lowered their starting salaries, and we are starting to see a measurable impact from lower-paying non-partnership track lawyer jobs at large law firms, aggregate starting salaries have fallen over the last two years because graduates found fewer jobs with the highest-paying large law firms and many more jobs with lower-paying small law firms.”

Big law firms’ self-inflicted wounds

Surely, things are better than they were during the cataclysmic days of early 2009; equity partner profits have returned to pre-2008 peaks. So what’s happening? One answer is that large firms are increasing the ranks of non-equity partners. According to The American Lawyerthe number of non-equity partners grew by almost six percent in 2011. They now comprise fifteen percent of all attorneys in Am Law 100 firms.

As The American Lawyer’s editor in chief Robin Sparkman explains, “Some firms deequitized partners and pushed them into this holding pen. Other firms expanded the practice of moving potential equity partners (either homegrown or laterals) into this category — both to keep their PPP high and to give the lawyers a little breathing room before they face the rainmaking pressures of equity partnership.” I’d add one more category: some firms have increased the ranks of permanent non-equity partners.

Perilous short-termism

Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna have described how non-equity partners are profit centers. Keeping them around longer makes more money for equity partners, but creating that non-equity partner bubble comes at significant institutional costs. One is blockage.

For any firm, there’s only so much work to go around. Ultimately, the burgeoning ranks of non-equity partners has an adverse trickle down impact on those seeking to enter the big firm pipeline. Whether new graduates should have that aspiration is a different question, but the larger implications for the affected firms are clear: There’s less room for today’s brightest young law graduates.

Some leaders have decided that maximizing current equity partner profits is more important than securing, training and developing a future generation of talent for their law firms. Sooner than they realize, their firms will suffer the tragic consequences of that mistake.

BONUS TIME — AND ANOTHER UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Above the Law’s David Lat wins my Unfortunate Comment Award with this assessment of Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s recent 2011 bonus announcement:

“My own take: these amounts — which are the same as the 2010 and 2009 bonus scales at CSM, except for the most-senior associates — are fair. The past three years — 2009, 2010, and 2011 — have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing. To the extent that firms are treading water a bit, it’s reasonable for them to keep associate compensation at the same levels.”

“Treading water a bit”?

Let’s start with the suggestion that “the past three years have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing.” According to The American Lawyer, Cravath’s 2008 average equity partner profits were $2.5 million — admittedly a sharp decline from 2007. But it’s still pretty good and, since then, equity partner profit trees have resumed their growth to the sky.

As the economy struggled, Cravath’s average partner profits increased to $2.7 million in 2009 and to $3.17 million in 2010, according to the Am Law 100 surveys. That’s not “treading water.” It’s returning to 2007 profit levels — the height of “amazing” boom years that most observers had declared gone forever. Watch for 2011 profits to be even higher.

It’s fair [and] reasonable to keep associate compensation at the same levels as 2009 and 2010″

If Lat’s comparative baseline is the American labor force generally, his view of fairness has superficial appeal. To most people, Cravath’s bonuses atop base salaries starting at $160,000 are impressive — ranging from $7,500 (first-year associates) to $37,500 (seventh-year associates). Couple those numbers with big firm partner complaints that law schools fail to train lawyers for tasks in the big law world and perhaps associates should consider themselves fortunate that they’re not being asked to rebate a portion of their pay for the privilege billing long hours.

(There are problems with current legal education in America, but the critique that graduates aren’t prepared for big law practice misses several key points, including: Eighty-five percent of lawyers will never have big firm jobs, the vast majority of those who do won’t keep them for more than a few years, and most of the remaining survivors will find their careers surprisingly unsatisfying. For more, take a look at “A New Law School Mission.”)

But I digress. For now, the question is fairness. In law firms, it’s a relative concept — a point that causes Lat’s analysis to miss the mark badly.

As Cravath’s 2010 average equity partner profits have been returning to their 2007 high-water mark, compare them to associate bonuses, which haven’t:

Associate bonus after first full year

2007: $35,000, special $10,000

2011: $7,500

Second-year

2007: $40,000, special $15,000

2011: $10,000

Third-year

2007: $45,000, special $20,000

2011: $15,000

Fourth-year

2007: $50,000, special $30,000

2011: $20,000

Fifth-year

2007: $55,000, special $40,000

2011: $25,000

Sixth-year

2007: $60,000, special $50,000

2011: $30,000

Seventh-year

2007: $60,000, special $50,000

2011: $37,500

Earlier this year, Sullivan & Cromwell offered spring associate bonuses for 2010 ranging from $2,500 (first-year) to $20,000 (seventh-year). Cravath and others then followed suit. Even if that happens again this year, recent classes will still be far worse off than their 2007-era predecessors.

Meanwhile, law school tuition has continued to rise, so the newest associates have the biggest educational loans to repay. In the current buyer’s market for young attorneys, that’s more good news for big firms. Their associates — whose average billables are back over 2,000 hours again — won’t be going anywhere. Unless, of course, the staggering attrition rates needed to sustain the leveraged big law pyramid push them out the door. Viewed as an integrated system, the prevailing model functions effectively to produce and exploit an oversupply of lawyers.

Most big firms will follow Cravath’s lead. But they can afford to do better — a lot better — and they should. As associate bonuses have stagnated, the overall average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 have returned to pre-recession levels — reaching almost $1.4 million in 2010.

How much is enough? More, apparently. According to the latest survey of Am Law 200 firm leaders currently appearing in the The American Lawyer, managing partners expect the upward profits trend to continue. Keeping the lid on associate compensation is a key to that strategy. It hasn’t been a great ride for the non-lawyer support staff, either.

Now you know why my next post will be titled, “Occupy Big Law.” I’m not kidding.

FROM THE SPORTS PAGE

Subtle clues revealing the cause of a fundamental problem confronting the legal profession are everywhere, even in the sports section.

Recently, the New York Times wrote about 26-year-old Josh Satin, who made his major league debut for the New York Mets on Sunday, September 4. This time of year, such stories about minor league ballplayers getting a chance to play for out-of-contention major league teams are common. Regrettably, one of my hometown franchises — the Cubs — affords such opportunities almost every year.

This line of the Satin article caught my eye:

“After graduating as a political science major from Cal, Satin was selected by the Mets in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. And like any number of 20-somethings with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects, he kept law school applications at the ready.”

Satin was drafted the  same year I began offering an advanced undergraduate course that targeted students like him. For many juniors and seniors who can’t decide what to do next, law school becomes a default solution that buys them more time. Sometimes it works out okay; for too many others, it’s a place where dreams go to die.

Bad information bears much of the blame for the problem of poor career choices that, in turn, contribute to widespread attorney dissatisfaction. Law schools skirting the outer limits of candor to fill their classrooms have made the problem worse. So has the transformation of big firms from a profession to a collection of short-term profit-maximizing businesses that use misguided metrics to drive decisions.

As a consequence, some not-so-funny things happened to many of those who went to law school for the wrong reasons. For starters, the promise of a secure future at a well-paying job turned out to be illusory. The persistent problem of lawyer oversupply rose to crisis levels during what would have been Satin’s first year of law school, if he’d gone. Since then, the market for new talent has gotten worse.

But even many who found decent legal jobs have been unpleasantly surprised. Popular images of dynamic lawyers engaged in courtroom battles widen the gap between student expectations and the reality they’ll encounter; that eventually makes for some very unhappy attorneys. By the time the truth hits, many find themselves burdened with educational debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the house.

That doesn’t mean no one should go to law school. The law is a great and noble pursuit in many ways. In fact, even the most pessimistic assessments suggest that about half of all attorneys enjoy satisfying careers. I sure did.

Nor does it mean that everyone who dreams of playing major league baseball — or any other high-profile job that the media infuses with irresistible glamour — should give it a shot. Everyone enjoys watching extraordinarily talented celebrities ply their trades, but for most of us, being a spectator is our highest and best use at such events. In his address to the Northwestern graduating class of 2011, Stephen Colbert referred to commencement speakers who tell college graduates to follow their dreams and asked, “What if it’s a stupid dream?”

But acknowledging the stupidity of a dream shouldn’t make law school the fallback answer to one of life’s most important questions, “Now what?”

I don’t know if Josh Satin will remain a major league ballplayer. If he doesn’t, I don’t know what he’ll do after that. But meanwhile, give him credit for having the courage to pursue passions for which he obviously has talent. It’s a safe bet that he’s happier than his college classmates “with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects [who] kept law school applications at the ready,” sent them in, and pursued legal careers for which they had incomplete knowledge, limited enthusiasm, or both. Compounding the difficulties with which they began law school, they’re now having trouble finding the secure, well-paying and exciting work that they thought would be waiting for them when they graduated.

It turns out that for most of the nation’s 50,000 annual graduates, those particular jobs were never there at all.

FAMILY FRIENDLY?

Lawyers know that definitions dictate outcomes. That’s why the Yale Law Women’s latest list of the “Top Ten Family Friendly Firms” includes some surprising names. At least, some surprised me.

It turns out that the YLW’s definition of family friendly is more restrictive than the plain meaning of the words. According to the survey methodology, it’s mostly a function of firms’ attention to particular issues relating primarily to women. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t be confused with what really undermines the family-friendliness of any big firm — its devotion to billable hours and billings as metrics that determine success. That problem isn’t gender-specific.

To compile the annual list, YLW surveyed the Vault Top 100 Law Firms. What would happen if they included all of the NLJ 250 or an even larger group that included small firms? I don’t know, but I’ll bet the list would look a lot different.

Now consider the survey categories and YLW commentary:

— Percentage of female attorneys: “Although YLW found that, on average, 45% of associates at responding law firms are women, women make up only 17% of equity partners and 18% of firm executive management committees. Additionally, on average, women made up just 27% of newly promoted partners in 2010.”

— Access to and use of parental leave: Virtually all firms have them. Big deal.

— Emergency and on-site child care: I understand the advantages, but how much family friendly credit should a firm get for providing a place where young lawyers can leave their babies and pre-schoolers while they work all day?

— Part-time and flex-time work policies: “98% offer a flex-time option, in which attorneys bill full-time hours while regularly working outside the office.” So what? I know senior partners without families who’ve done that for years.

— Usage of part-time and flex-time policies: “On average, 7% of attorneys at these firms were working part-time in 2010.” Will they become equity partners? “Of the 7% of attorneys working part-time, only 11% were partners, a number that may also include partners approaching retirement. Only 5% of the partners promoted in 2010 had worked part-time in the past, on average, and only 4% were working part-time when they were promoted.”

— Billable hours and compensation practices: “[I]t remains to be seen whether it is truly possible to work part-time at all. Our statistics indicate that while part-time attorneys appear to be fairly compensated, many may work more hours than originally planned. Most firms (93%) provide additional compensation if part-time attorneys work more than the planned number of hours or make part-time attorneys eligible for bonuses (96%). However, part-time attorneys received bonuses at higher rates than full-time attorneys (25% compared to 23% on average), suggesting that many part-time schedules may ultimately morph into full-time hours over the course of a year.”

— Alternative career programs: What’s that? Outplacement support?

All of this gets weighted according to another survey of Yale Law School alumni who ranked the relative importance of the surveyed policies and practices.

Continuing efforts to achieve greater big law transparency are laudable. But one problem with lists and rankings is that they take on a life of their own, wholly apart from methodological limitations and the caveats accompanying the results. (See, e.g., U.S. News rankings). Here, the YLW cautioned that it “remains concerned about the low rates of retention for women, the dearth of women in leadership positions, the gender gap in those who take advantage of family friendly policies, and the possibility that part-time work can derail an otherwise successful career.”

The honored firms will gloss over that warning, issue press releases, and delude themselves into believing that they are something they’re not. Someone truly interested in whether a place is family friendly should find out where it ranks on the “Misery Index.” Partners won’t tell you, but that metric would reveal a firm’s true commitment to the long-term health and welfare of its attorneys and their families.

If you really love someone, you should set them free — even if it’s only every other weekend.

DEBT LOADING

The University of Virginia Law School has offered its unemployed 3Ls stipends to defray the cost of bar application fees ($500) and bar exam prep courses ($1500). This follows a protest during admitted students weekend when some UVA students wore (and sold) T-shirts saying, “$40,000 a year and no jobs.” Of course, such public turmoil is the tip of a mammoth iceberg that isn’t limited to UVA.

The absence of jobs — even for graduates of top schools — is especially dire because repayment of educational loans typically begins when higher education ends. The collateral damage of such debt can persist for generations. As one analyst recently told the NY Times, “A lot of people will still be paying off their student loans when it’s time for their kids to go to college.” According to the same Times article, last year’s college graduates left school with $24,000 in debt.

For those moving on to law school, $24,000 soon looks like the good old days. The 2009 Law School Survey of Student Engagement reported this stunner:

“The percentage of full-time U.S. students expecting to graduate owing more than $120,000 is up notably in 2009…29% of students expect to graduate with this level of debt.” Almost half of all law students expect to cross the $100,000 debt threshold before getting their degrees.

Here’s the disconnect: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for all lawyers nine months after graduation is $68,500. Try servicing $120,000+ debt on that budget. Average compensation for all attorneys in the United States is $129,000 a year.

Why the gap between investment and reward? A better question is, why not? The BLS numbers don’t appear in law school recruiting brochures that are more likely to tout big law’s $160,000 starting salaries. Nor do they disclose the downside that comes with those high-paying jobs.

Likewise, most schools don’t report meaningful employment data, either. When they collectively tell U.S. News that the most recent average employment rate nine months after graduation is 93%, something is amiss — like the fact that employed can mean being a greeter at Wal-Mart or flipping burgers at McDonald’s. In an insightful new article, Professor Paul Campos calculates the true rate — graduates with full-time legal jobs nine months out — to be well under 50%.

Revealing the truth would almost certainly drive down applications, compromise U.S. News rankings, and threaten law schools’ bottom lines. That might force many deans to reconsider what they’re doing to their own students. Too many administrators hide behind rhetoric — “free choice,” “markets work,” and “students should take personal responsibility” — as excuses to disregard their own roles as the profession’s most important fiduciaries. When ignorance and misinformation reign, choices are distorted and markets don’t work. I often wonder if law school deans who have kids the same age as those they’re duping behave differently from the rest. Or do they fault students’  “failure to take responsibility,” too?

My article, “Great Expectations Meet Painful Realities,” appearing in the current issue of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association’s semi-annual publication, Circuit Rider has more on this (starting at page 24).

Fraud can be overt — by commission — or it can occur by omission when there’s a duty to speak. Revealing good facts can create an obligation to disclose the bad ones. Greater candor won’t stop the flow of talented applicants to law schools. Nor should it. The legal profession is still a noble calling. But it has also become a way for some educational institutions improperly to persuade the next generation to mortgage its own future — literally.

Some call it the next big bubble. If it bursts, I’m not sure what that will mean. Because of statutory revisions in 2005, bankruptcy doesn’t discharge student loan debt unless the difficult “undue hardship” test is met. The era of big bailouts has passed, so that’s an unlikely solution as well.

Perhaps we’ll see a new growth industry in the revival of an ancient concept: debtors prisons. Law school deans who lost sight of their true obligations to their students and their profession should run them — without pay.