UPDATE ON THE BATTLE FOR CHARLESTON

Call it an eleventh-hour reprieve. Or maybe it’s just a break before the executioner arrives. On Thursday, June 5, the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education was going to decide on InfiLaw’s application for a license to own and operate the for-profit Charleston School of Law. But a day before the scheduled vote, InfiLaw suspended its application.

As I wrote last week, InfiLaw owns and operates three for-profit law schools (Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal). Its owner is Sterling Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm that lists InfiLaw as a holding in its “education portfolio.” In July 2013, InfiLaw agreed to buy the Charleston School of Law. On May 19, the Committee on Academic Affairs and Licensing voted 3-to-1 against recommending InfiLaw’s license request. Then things got interesting.

On May 23 — four days after the Committee’s rejection and just before the Memorial Day weekend – state representative John Richard C. King wrote to the South Carolina Attorney General’s office. He sought an advisory opinion that, if provided, would essentially require the Commission on Higher Education to approve InfiLaw’s application, notwithstanding the earlier Committee rejection. Representative King is also a first-year student at the InfiLaw school in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Only a week after King’s request, the AG’s office issued a detailed 10-page single-spaced legal opinion that gave InfiLaw what it wanted. The final sentence warns: “Any licensing decision based upon criteria outside the law would, of course, be subject to judicial review and possible reversal.”

State senator John Courson immediately suggested that InfiLaw suspend its request temporarily because the AG’s opinion “needs to be vetted” and Governor Nikki Haley needs to fill vacant seats on the Commission before it discusses the issue.

Senator Courson hasn’t revealed publicly where he stands on the merits of InfiLaw’s proposed acquisition. But when legislators want a governor to fill vacant committee seats before taking a final vote on a matter of interest to them, there’s usually a reason. As InfliLaw’s statement accompanying the suspension of its application declares: “We are committed to this acquisition and intend to renew our application in due course.” Close observers might get the uneasy feeling that they’re watching sausage being made.

Meanwhile, no one is discussing the more important point that transcends the Charleston situation. Typically, private equity investors seek opportunities that will provide them with above average returns. That’s not a criticism; it’s their business. However, if for-profit legal education generates returns that are appealing to private equity investors, non-dischargeable federal student loans are the reason. In a glutted market for lawyers, that’s a remarkably unfortunate outcome.

THE BATTLE FOR CHARLESTON

On the heels of my post about two struggling law schools, the New York Times published Professor Steven R. Davidoff’s discussion about one of them. Davidoff argues that critics of InfiLaw’s proposed acquisition of for-profit Charleston Law School are missing a key point: Why is it any worse for the private equity firm that owns InfiLaw to operate Charleston School of Law than, say, the current owners who have already taken millions of dollars out of the school?

In fact, he implies, if the school winds up affiliating with the state-run College of Charleston, why would that be preferable? Profit is profit; what difference does it make who gets it?

Here’s Davidoff’s money quote: “Lost among the dispute is the fact that a lower-tier law school like Charleston — whoever owns it — can not only produce capable graduates but help students start careers they couldn’t have without a law degree.”

Really?

As I’ve reported previously, even the dismal market for new attorneys hasn’t slowed the growth of InfliLaw’s three law schools (Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal) — from a combined 679 graduates in 2011 to 1,191 in 2013. According to the ABA, only 36 percent of the InfiLaw classes of 2013 (including all three of its law schools) obtained full-time, long term JD-required employment.

Disaggregation doesn’t make things look any better for the company, unless you’re one of its private equity owners. For example, Davidoff cites Florida Coastal’s improvement in the percentage of graduates who pass the bar — from 58.2 percent to 76.4 percent as evidence of InfiLaw’s “track record of improving schools.” He’s responding to a “fear about the acquisition — that a private equity firm will lower standards.”

Davidoff doesn’t cite a source for his 76.4 percent number. According to Florida Coastal’s website, only 67.4 percent of first-time takers passed the bar in July 2013 — down from 75.2 percent for the July 2012 test. For February 2014, 72.9 percent of first-time takers passed — down from 79.3 percent in February 2013.

But that’s a minor issue compared to the overriding problem: only 31 percent of 2013 graduates obtained full-time, long-term jobs requiring that degree. The rest are not starting “careers that they wouldn’t have without a law degree.”

Debt

Maybe most InfiLaw graduates aren’t getting full-time, long-term law jobs, but they’re acquiring a lot of educational debt. Annual tuition and fees at all three InfiLaw schools exceed $40,000. 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.

Davidoff’s defense of InfiLaw ignores the combination of big debt and poor employment outcomes that afflict most of its recent graduates.

His concluding thoughts make a valid point: “Instead of arguing about who will profit from them, Charleston’s students may instead want to ask who will give South Carolina’s residents the best opportunity to succeed as lawyers at an acceptable price.”

Based on its track record to date, the answer isn’t InfiLaw. And I would reframe the question: Why should anyone profit at all when non-dischargeable student loans are the source of those profits?

The new ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education has an unprecedented opportunity to straighten out this mess and take the profession to a better place. But with the chairman of InfiLaw’s National Policy Board (Dennis Archer) chairing that committee, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

 

A TALE OF TWO LAW SCHOOLS

Two law schools in the news probably wish that they weren’t. They exemplify market dysfunction in the current system of financing legal education.

Indiana Tech

More than a year ago, I wrote about Indiana Tech Law School, one of several law schools founded after 2010. As proponents completed a feasibility study, newly required ABA disclosures demonstrated that only half of all recent law school graduates were finding full-time, long-term JD-required jobs. But some people thought that Indiana really needed a fifth law school.

Indiana Tech Law School opened its doors in 2013. It enrolled only 28 first-year students, far below the original target of 100. On May 21, 2014, its first dean and university provost Peter Alexander resigned both positions. According to the university press release, “Alexander cited the achievement of the goals he had established for the law school to that point in time and a desire to pursue other employment opportunities as the reasons for his decision to resign.”

An uncertain future?

In addition to promoting Indiana Tech as unique, the school’s website introduces prospective students to the doctrine of caveat emptor:

“Like any new law school, Indiana Tech must be in operation for one year prior to seeking ABA accreditation…The Law School makes no representation to any applicant that it will be approved by the American Bar Association prior to the graduation of any matriculating student.”

In early May, the school stated its intent to seek provisional accreditation. Perhaps ABA Accreditation Standard 201 will be relevant to that determination: “The present and anticipated financial resources of a law school shall be adequate to sustain a sound program of legal education and accomplish its mission.”

At Indiana Tech, tuition is $30,360; estimated living and other expenses and add another $17,800. No data exist on the extent to which the 28 students in the school’s inaugural class borrowed funds for their first year. But it seems likely that federal student loan dollars were central to the following prediction in 2011 – when projected enrollment for the class entering in 2013 was 100 and expected to grow thereafter: “The school [will be] breaking even in 2017, according to the feasibility study. By the fifth year, the law school is projected to start operating at a surplus.”

Without assumptions about growing student loan debt to fund operations, would anyone have thought Indiana Tech Law School was “feasible” in 2011? How about 2014?

Charleston School of Law

Charleston, a for-profit law school, reveals a different kind of market dysfunction. InfiLaw, a for-profit law school group, has been trying to acquire it since last summer. (Recently, I wrote about InfiLaw and one of its national board members who chairs the new ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education.) On May 19, a committee of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education voted to reject a recommendation that InfiLaw receive a license to operate Charleston Law School.

InfiLaw’s attorney, Kevin Hall, renewed the company’s effort in a public hearing before the full Commission. He described the school as “in a financial tailspin.” According to the Charleston Post and Courier, “The five judges and lawyers who started Charleston School of Law a decade ago with the lofty goal of training attorneys committed to public service… began draining money from the school [in 2010], withdrawing $25 million in profits by 2013 that they split among themselves.”

The three remaining owners “confirmed Hall’s description of the school’s financial situation, and they all agreed that it got that way because owners for years had been pulling profits from the institution.”

Follow the money

What was the source of Charleston’s now-distributed profits? The answer appears on the school’s website:

“Most students will depend on federal student loans to pay for tuition, books and living expenses while in law school. During the 2012-2013 academic year, 88% of our students borrowed student loans to finance their legal education. At graduation, the average student loan debt incurred for those borrowers while attending the Charleston School of Law was $146,595.”

Nine months after graduation, 53 percent of the school’s class of 2013 had found full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. More than half of those were working in firms of 10 or fewer attorneys.

So at Charleston, student debtors finance profit distributions to law school owners who have no accountability for poor graduate outcomes. When the school later hits the financial skids, only InfiLaw, another for-profit organization, can rescue it.

Wealth redistribution takes many forms, but none produces results more perverse than the current system for financing — and profiting from — legal education.

MORE JOBS, EXCEPT FOR LAWYERS

During April 2014, job growth exceeded economists’ expectations. The recovery continues, but one line item in the latest detailed Bureau of Labor Statistics report should be particularly troubling to some law school deans and professors who are making bold predictions about the future.

The Facts

As the economy added 288,000 new jobs last month, total legal services employment (including lawyers and non-lawyers) declined by 1,200 positions from March 2014. A single monthly result doesn’t mean much. But over the past year, total legal services employment has increased by only 700 jobs.

In fact, according to the BLS, since December 2007 net legal services employment has shrunk by 37,000 jobs. Meanwhile, law schools have been awarding 40,000 new JD degrees annually for more than a decade.

The Denier’s Plight

Some law school deans and professors still object to any characterization of this situation as a “crisis” in legal education. In fact, one professor proclaimed last summer that now is still a great time to go to law school because a lawyer shortage would be upon us by the fall of 2015! Before rejoicing that we’ve almost reached that promised land, note that in 2011 the same professor, Ted Seto at Loyola Law School – Los Angeles, similarly predicted that the short-term problem of lawyer oversupply would lend itself to a quick and self-correcting resolution when the business cycle turned upward.

Well, the upward turn has been underway for several years, but significant growth in the number of new legal jobs hasn’t accompanied it. Nevertheless, tuition has continued to rise. For prelaw students now contemplating six-figure JD debt, law school deniers have a soothing argument: A degree from anywhere is well worth the cost to anyone who gets it.

Using aggregate data, the deniers ignore dramatic difference in individual outcomes for schools and students. Some deniers even use their lifetime JD-value calculations to defend unrivaled tuition growth rates for law schools generally. In somewhat contradictory rhetoric, they simultaneously promote income-based loan repayment plans as a panacea.

Leadership?

Recently, one dean assured me privately that deniers have now become outliers. If so, the overall reaction of deans as a group remains troubling. In particular, law schools have countered a precipitous drop in applicants with soaring acceptance rates. The likely result will be a fall 2014 class somewhere between 35,000 and 38,000 first-year students.

Likewise, law school sales pitches have devolved into cynical efforts at selling something other than the practice of law. They market the versatility of a JD as preparation for anything else that law graduates might want to do with their lives. But so is medicine. So are lots of things. So what? Medical schools train doctors. Isn’t the core mission of law schools to train lawyers? What will remain after we abandon that sense of professional purpose and identity?

Practicing Law? Oh, I Could Have Done That. 

All of this raises a question: How do the law school deans and professors in denial about the state of things deal with unpleasant facts that don’t fit the world view they’re trying to sell others? Ignore them. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, as the self-designated Wizard of Oz might say to Dorothy. Somehow, we’ll get you back to Kansas — where associate admissions dean Steven Freedman at the University of Kansas recently went public with his denial.

Like similar predictions, Freedman’s analysis is suspect. For example, his projections of a lawyer shortage by 2017-2018 ignore the excess inventory of new law graduates that the system has produced over the past several years (and is still producing). (In a follow-up comment to his own post on “The Faculty Lounge,” Freedman defends his resulting calculations on the unsupported grounds that “the vast majority of them retired or changed careers” — an assumption, he acknowledges, that contradicts the real world observations and data of Jim Leipold, executive director of NALP.)

Even worse, Freedman offers a general recommendation to every prospective student — “Enroll today!” was the title of his first installment at “The Faculty Lounge.” But he fails to mention that employment outcomes vary enormously across law schools. His post’s subtitle — “Why 2017-2018 Will Be a Fantastic Time to Graduate from Law School” — is fraught with the danger that accompanies the absence of a nuanced and individualized message.

Ironically, in the real world of clients, judges, and juries, attorneys who ignore the key facts in a case usually lose. Eventually, they have trouble making a living. Someday, perhaps the law school deniers will have that experience, first-hand.

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.

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.

 

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.

THE END OF THE LAWYER GLUT?

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

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

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

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

How about a job?

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

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

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

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

U.S. News to the rescue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A CASE OF MOTIVATED REASONING

A recent survey, “What Courses Should Law Students Take? Harvard’s Largest Employers Weigh In?” by Harvard Law School Professors John Coates, Jesse Fried, and Kathryn Spier, has assumed a life that its sponsors never intended. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal headline implies that the survey provides a roadmap to success: “Want to Excel in Big Law? Master the Balance Sheet.” Likewise, some cite the survey in taking unwarranted shots at proposals to make law school more experiential.

Such misinterpretations of the Harvard survey might spring from a condition that psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky would call motivated reasoning: “the discounting of information or evidence that challenges one’s prior beliefs accompanied by uncritical acceptance of anything that is attitude-consonant.” In other words, people often see what they want to see, even when it isn’t there.

The HLS survey

Harvard sought curriculum input from an important constituency, namely, some big law firms. The questionnaire went to 124 practicing attorneys at the 11 largest employers of Harvard graduates in recent years, including my former firm Kirkland & Ellis. Among the respondents were 52 litigators, 50 corporate/transactional attorneys, and 22 regulatory practitioners. The tiny non-random sample is not even a representative slice of a typical big law firm practice.

Harvard didn’t ask attorneys to identify law school courses that might improve a student’s chances of getting a job. It couldn’t. The 11 firms represented in the survey hire virtually all new associates from their own second-year summer programs. They base those hiring decisions on first-year grades because, at the time they extend offers, there are no other law school grades to consider. Whatever courses students might take in the second or third years make no difference to their big law firm employment prospects.

Harvard also didn’t ask lawyers to identify courses that might help graduates become equity partners. That would be silly because there are no such courses. Even among Harvard graduates, fewer than 15 percent of those who begin their careers as new associates in big firms will become equity partners many years later.

So what did the survey investigate? The questionnaire could have read: You work in one of 11 big firms that serve corporate America. Your firm already hires many Harvard graduates. What courses can we offer that will make those newbies most useful to you when they start work?

Answering only the questions asked

Even within its narrow scope, the HLS questionnaire limited the range of permissible responses. For example, three questions focused exclusively on courses in “business methods” and “business organizations” (“BM” and “BO” — no laughing). Here’s Question #1:

“HLS has a variety of business methods courses that are geared towards students who have little or no exposure to these areas. For each of the following existing HLS classes, please indicate how useful the course would be for an associate to have taken (1 = Not at all Useful; 3 = Somewhat Useful; 5 = Extremely Useful).”

Respondents had to choose from among seven options: accounting and financial reporting, corporate finance, negotiation workshop, business strategy for lawyers, analytical methods for lawyers, leadership in law firms, and statistical analysis/quantitative analysis. Accounting and financial reporting placed first among all responses; corporate finance was second. Big deal.

Likewise, when asked to look beyond the seven business methods choices in identifying useful courses, respondents predictably chose corporations, mergers & acquisitions, and securities regulation as the top three. For decades, those classes have comprised the heart of most second-year students’ schedules. Again, no news here — and no magic formula that produces success in big law.

The options not offered

As for the misguided suggestion that the survey trashes experiential learning, only one survey question asked attorneys to identify the most useful courses outside the business area. Evidence, federal courts, and administrative law topped the list. But respondents didn’t have the option of choosing trial practice or any other experiential course because they didn’t appear on the questionnaire’s multiple-choice list of permissible answers.

So let’s return to some of the headlines about the HLS study.

Does the survey suggest that students taking business-oriented courses will be more likely to get jobs? No.

Does the survey suggest that students will be more likely to succeed — even in big law — if they take more business-oriented courses? No.

Does the HLS survey deal a blow to proponents of experiential learning? No. (In fact, an experiential option — negotiation workshop — did pretty well, placing third out of seven possible responses to Question #1.)

Desperately seeking something

In the end, any effort to overplay the survey collides with the authors’ concise summary: “The most salient result from the survey is that students should learn accounting and financial statement analysis, as well as corporate finance.” For that conclusion, no one needed 124 big law attorneys to complete an online questionnaire.

As the legal profession makes its wrenching transition to whatever is next, perhaps the unwarranted attention to the Harvard survey reflects a measure of desperation among those searching for answers. Motivated reasoning isn’t making that search any easier.

TROUBLE IN ALBANY

Recently, Albany Law School has attracted some unwanted publicity, but many other schools should be paying close attention. On February 3, the school offered buyouts to as many as eight tenured professors. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s almost 20 percent of the school’s full-time faculty.

Reversal of Fortune

Notwithstanding its relatively low position in the law school universe (U.S. News rank: #132), Albany Law School enjoyed a nice run from 2005 to 2011 — as did most of its peers. During that period, the school enrolled around 240 first-year students annually. Tuition rose steadily from $30,000 in 2005 to its current $42,000. During the period, student-faculty ratios dropped from 16:1 to 13:1.

But the last few years have been a different story. Even as it accepts almost 70 percent of all applicants, enrollment for the class of 2016 has plummeted to 182 – a 25 percent drop from 2005. The school placed a little more than half of its 2012 graduates in full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. (As with many schools, the decline in first-year enrollment accelerated after detailed ABA-mandated employment outcomes first appeared in 2012 for the class of 2011.)

Tough Choices

Albany’s new dean, Penelope Andrews, began her tenure on July 1, 2012. Even a thorough understanding of the school’s problematic trend lines could not have prepared her for the challenges she soon confronted.

On December 16, 2013, Daniel Nolan, chair of the Albany board of trustees, circulated an email stating that “relevant financial circumstances facing the School require a headcount reduction, including faculty.”

A week later, at the request of a newly formed (in November 2013) Albany Law School chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Gregory F. Schultz, associate secretary and director of the national AAUP, wrote a lengthy letter to Dean Andrews. Schultz expressed concern that the law school’s claims about economic circumstances didn’t rise to the level of “financial exigency” required to justify terminating tenured faculty. Instead, he wrote, Albany’s threatened action appeared to be a pretext for steps that “would eviscerate tenure at the Albany Law School and, with it, the protections for academic freedom.”

He said, She said

According to JDJournal, “one of the professors at the school said that there is a ‘small but vocal minority’ of faculty at the school who want standards lowered in an effort to increase enrollment. This would then prevent layoffs…. It’s a very selfish, selfish endeavor. They are really trying to save their jobs, but they’ve ginned this up to make it look like we are denying academic rights.”

The New York Law Journal reported that “several angry Albany Law School professors deny the faculty ever suggested the school should lower standards to boost enrollment and avert layoffs.” On February 3, 2014, the board of trustees reportedly quashed the idea anyway:

“A review of our declining bar passage statistics (we are now the second lowest law school in New York State for bar passage), combined with the extremely difficult employment market for our graduates, compels us to believe that we must focus on quality of applicants, not quantity. To admit students in order to increase revenues due to projected operating deficits would be both unethical and in violation of ABA standards.”

A Way Out?

Presumably, offering voluntary buyouts to tenured professors could solve the problem for now. If a sufficient number of faculty members accept, layoffs won’t happen. That would defer for another day the fight over whether the school truly faces “financial exigency” justifying involuntary terminations of tenured faculty.

Others can debate whether Albany is operating at a loss and/or should draw down it’s endowment to cover shortfalls. More interesting questions relate to any law school’s possible responses to the larger phenomenon of declining applicant pools.

Some Albany Law School professors reacted with indignant outrage at the suggestion that a colleague might have urged the school to counter declining applications with lower admission standards. But the fact is that many schools have responded in exactly that way. Overall acceptance rates have risen from 50 percent in 2003 to 75 percent in 2012. It’s a cynical strategy, but it keeps seats filled with tuition-paying student dollars from federally-backed loans.

Other schools are cutting costs and economizing where possible. Those efforts are laudable, but they are short-term fixes. Any long run solution requires the involvement of tenured faculty who now have a choice: be part of the solution or become a growing part of the problem. Tenure is an important and valuable aspect of higher education. But it won’t be worth much to those whose institutions disappear.

In the end, the question is whose interests matter most. Dean Andrews deserves praise for confirming what sometimes gets lost in the noise as various stakeholders scramble to preserve their positions in the legal academy:

“Cutbacks are very, very hard. But what is motivating everything about what I’m doing is my student-centric approach,” Dean Andrews said. “Albany Law School and law schools exist to train students and it’s all about the students.”

Indeed it is.

THE ONGOING LAW SCHOOL BAILOUT

Recently, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the “Protect Student Borrowers Act of 2013.” The bill would allow the Secretary of Education to require that colleges and universities pay a penalty for federal student loans in default. The penalty would increase with the school’s default rate.

Default is too long to wait before creating a better nexus between educators’ incentives and their graduates’ fate. Thousands of recent law graduates are living with the consequences of a system that immunizes schools from financial accountability for their students’ poor employment outcomes. Eighty-five percent of today’s newest lawyers have six-figure law school debt. Only about half of all 2012 graduates found full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics employment report indicates that between December 2012 and December 2013, employment in the “all legal services” category actually declined by 1,000 people.

Demand down; supply still growing

As the profession was losing a thousand jobs last year, law schools graduated a record number of new lawyers — 46,000 — and big classes are in the pipeline. Sure, law school applications are down, but acceptance rates have gone way, way up to compensate. Recent BLS estimates suggest an ongoing lawyer glut for years to come. (For a more detailed analysis, take a look at Matt Leichter’s recent article in Am Law Daily.) And in the midst of this disaster, law school tuition keeps increasing. It’s all quite perverse.

Unfortunately, it’s also a predictable consequence of structural incentives. Most university administrators (and their law school deans) run their institutions as businesses. In the current system of financing higher education, that approach produces a myopic focus: maximizing short-term tuition revenues by filling classrooms. Added encouragement comes from U.S. News rankings criteria that, for example, actually reward expenditures regardless of added value or lack thereof. The vast majority of students borrow enormous sums to pay tuition. But — and here’s where educational institutions lack the constraints that they would encounter as true businesses — any later failure to repay those loans never becomes the school’s problem.

Instead, virtually all student loans come with the backing of the federal government. In case of default, the schools remain protected. So far, graduate student default rates have remained below those for colleges and vocational schools, but across the board, all rates are trending higher. (I wonder if low JD default rates are attributable, in part, to lawyers’ better understanding of the procedural steps that can forestall default. Attorneys also grasp the counterproductive futility of defaulting: educational debt survives bankruptcy and forcing the government to pursue a default just adds monetary penalties and collection costs to the tab.)

IBR is no panacea

Income-based tuition repayment plans may become an important potential relief valve to some indebted graduates. But IBR is new and it comes with lots of caveats. For example, during the time that a graduate remains in the program, interest on his or her overall debt continues to accrue. Exiting the system before completing the requisite repayment period (typically 25 years; 10 years for public service jobs) can produce an even greater debt than existed upon graduation.

Those who make it all the way to the end of the repayment period are off the hook for their loans and accrued interest, but debt forgiven through IBR is considered taxable income. If Congress doesn’t fix that problem, the result will be a big tax bill for a person who, by definition of ongoing participation in the IBR program, can’t afford it. Moreover, the forgiven amounts still have to come from the federal treasury at taxpayer expense, so there never was or will be a free lunch – except for the schools that received tuition but thereafter had no financial skin in the game. It has the feel of a law school bailout, doesn’t?

A better way

Maybe this three-step approach would help to restore a functioning market: 1) allow educational loans to become dischargeable in bankruptcy; 2) in the course of such a proceeding, require the bankruptcy court to determine whether educational debt was a significant factor in the debtor’s need for bankruptcy protection; and 3) in those cases where it is such a factor, permit the federal government guarantor to seek recompense from the educational institution whose conduct lies at the heart of the mess. (Requiring need-blind admissions as a prerequisite to participation in the federal loan guaranty program generally might counteract a school’s temptation to bias admissions in favor of those who can afford to pay.)

Most people profess confidence in free markets — some with an evangelistic zeal. If they really want to give the market a chance to work in the student debt setting, they’ll support a serious effort to cure the system’s current failures. Personal educational debt currently exceeds $1.2 trillion — more than all consumer credit card debt combined. Every day, that bubble is growing. Just ask a law student.

ARE LAWYERS BECOMING HAPPIER?

A recent scholarly study and the 2013 Am Law Midlevel Associates Survey together pose an intriguing question: Is the legal profession becoming happier? If so, that would be a welcome development.

Perhaps the answer is yes and I should take partial credit, at least for improved associate morale in some big firms. After all, for years I’ve been writing and speaking about the extent to which the profession has evolved in ways that undermine attorney well being, especially in large firms. Since the publication of my book, The Lawyer Bubble, many managing partners have invited me to address their partnership meetings on that subject. But before getting too carried away, let’s take a closer look.

No Buyer’s Remorse!

In “Buyers’ Remorse? An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Lawyer Career,” Professors Ronit Dinovitzer (University of Toronto), Bryant Garth (University of California, Irvine – School of Law), and Joyce S. Sterling (University of Denver Strum College of Law) analyzed data from the After the JD project. It tracks about 4,500 lawyers from the class of 2000 who responded to questions in 2003, 2007, and 2012.

Among other things, the authors conclude that “the evidence of mass buyer’s remorse [over getting a legal degree] is thin at best.” (p. 3) I’m not convinced.

First, a new lawyer entering the market in 2000 has enjoyed better times for the profession than graduates of the last several years. That doesn’t render data from the class of 2000 meaningless, but a study based on the experience of those attorneys shouldn’t become a headline-grabber that unduly influences anyone considering a legal career today.

Second, the authors rely only on responses that attorneys provided in 2007. The answers they gave in 2012 are “currently being cleaned and readied for analysis” (p. 5), so the authors didn’t use them. What was the rush to get to print with 2007 data? Why not wait and use the 2012 results to see whether accelerating law firm trends since 2007 affected responses from even the comparatively lucky class of 2000.

(For more on those trends, including partner de-equitizations, salary reductions for non-equity partners, and the environment that has accompanied the accelerating drive to increase short-term profits, read Edwin Reeser’s excellent two-part article in the ABA Journal.)

More on the Data

In the end, After the JD is a useful source of information. But it’s an overstatement to argue, as Dinovitzer et al. assert, “the data from the AJD project are the best (and almost only) data available on the issues currently being debated.” (p. 5)

In fact, there have been dozens of studies on attorney satisfaction, including an October 2007 ABA survey in which six out of ten attorneys who have been practicing 10 years or more said they would not recommend a legal career to a young person. And that was prior to the Great Recession.

Now before defensive academics pull out their knives, let me state clearly that I’m not suggesting that the ABA’s online survey of 800 lawyers is somehow superior to the obviously more comprehensive After the JD project. It’s not. But contrary to the authors’ assertion, AJD is far from the only data available on the issues currently being debated.”

For example, Professor Jerome A. Organ (University of St Thomas School of Law) recently published a compilation of 28 attorney surveys taken between 1984 and 2007. Rates of satisfied attorneys ranged from a low of 59 percent (South Carolina – 2008) to a high of 93 percent (Minnesota – 1987). The latest national study on Organ’s list (ABA/NALP – 2007) reported a satisfaction rate of 76 percent. (He excluded the ABA’s reported 55 percent satisfaction rate in 2007 because it “was not a random sample of attorneys.” n. 144.)

The Am Law Survey

Meanwhile, Am Law’s annual Midlevel Associates Survey of third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates reported record high levels of associate satisfaction. Are their lives improving?

Anecdotal evidence of another possibility comes from an observed shift in attitudes among students in my undergraduate and law classes over the past several years. Many members of the youngest generation of lawyers (and would-be lawyers) are so concerned about finding jobs that they are now equating satisfaction with getting and keeping one long enough to repay their staggering student loans. That might explain why the same Am Law survey found that only 10 percent of men and 6.5 percent of women saw themselves as equity partners at their current firms in five years.

Now What?

Even so, inquiries that I receive from law firm managing partners provide more anecdotal proof that some firms have decided to value associate morale. The question is whether firm leaders will have the courage to push positive change into the very heart of the prevailing big law firm business model.

On that front, the news is less encouraging. In March 2013, Forbes reported on a “Career Bliss” survey of 65,000 employees that ranked “law firm associate” first on the list of “Unhappiest Jobs in America.” Likewise, in a recent Altman Weil Flash Survey, 40 percent of managing partners reported that partner morale at their firms in 2013 was lower than at the beginning of 2008 (pre-recession).

The Bottom Line

In the end, Dinovitzer et al. seem encouraged that “the overall trend is that more than three-quarters of respondents, irrespective of debt, express extreme or moderate satisfaction with the decision to become a lawyer.”

That’s supposed to be good news. But there are more than 1.2 million attorneys in the U.S.. Even a 75 to 80 percent satisfaction rate leaves more than 200,000 lawyers with what sure looks like buyer’s remorse.

The profession can do better than a “C.”

LATEST SYMPTOMS OF AN AILING PROFESSION

Together, three recent stories capture much of what ails the legal profession: 1) law schools continue to produce way too many lawyers for the number of anticipated jobs requiring a JD degree; 2) future attorneys incur staggering debt for a three-year degree that can and should be obtainable in two; and 3) many senior partners in big law firms at the pinnacle of the profession have lost an appreciation for their good fortune and a sense of perspective that comes with it.

The End of Lawyers?

The first story reports a continuing drop in the number of law school applicants — more than 30 percent since 2010! Could this be the beginning of what one law professor has predicted will be an actual shortage of lawyers by 2016?

No.

Using 2010 as a baseline against which to measure the comparative decline in applications is misleading. The Great Recession produced a surge of 2009-2010 applicants seeking a three-year reprieve from an impossible job market. At that time, law school still looked like a safe bet, largely because deans could tout 93 percent employment rates without disclosing which of their graduates held jobs that were short-term, part-time, school-funded, or didn’t require a legal degree.

Another fact is more salient: Overall acceptance rates have increased dramatically. In 2003, about half of the 98,000 applicants were admitted. In 2012, law schools took 75 percent of the 68,000 applicants. Bottom line: prior to the Great Recession, first-year enrollment totaled about 49,000; in 2012, it was 44,500. That drop is certainly affecting some law schools. But the overall decline is not as dramatic as the hyperbolic headlines. If first-year enrollment ever falls below 30,000 and stays there for a few years, that will be newsworthy.

What Are Students Getting For Their Money?

Meanwhile, President Obama weighed in on the subject of eliminating the third year of law school. It’s been a great idea for a long time. Of course, the third year will survive the President’s criticism because it accounts for one-third of law school tuition revenues. Such a central component of the law school business model won’t die easily.

Some members of the legal academy defend the third year of formal legal education as necessary for increasingly complex times. That argument may prove too much. After the first year teaches prospective attorneys to think like lawyers and the second year covers basic substantive legal areas, the most relevant legal training occurs outside the classroom under the tutelage of practicing lawyers. Many attorneys develop specialties, but that doesn’t result from taking one or two advanced courses during the third year of law school.

Deans can pass blame for the enduring third year onto the ABA. It has long been a victim of regulatory capture by the institutions it’s supposed to be supervising for the well being of all attorneys and the profession. The vast majority of states require graduation from an ABA-accredited law school and the ABA’s rules insist on course work that requires three academic years to complete. That’s why the few schools that offer accelerated two-year JDs are simply cramming three years of credits into two calendar years.

Moreover, the accelerated programs rarely reduce the cost of law school. Most of the schools offering accelerated programs charge the same total tuition as their traditional three-year programs.

Meanwhile, At Big Firms…

A final story is developing over financial reports concerning the overall performance of big law firms in 2013: Revenues are flat; demand is down. Partner profits might not rise this year!

Where you stand depends on where you sit, I suppose. But what does it say about the most lucrative segment of the profession when law firm management consultants can induce panic at the prospect that average equity partner profits might remain steady or — perish the thought — drop to still-astounding six- or seven-figure levels that seemed remarkably good less than a decade ago?

I think it suggests that too many partners have forgotten why they went to law school in the first place. Very few became attorneys because they thought it would make them rich. But they’ve grown accustomed to that pleasant surprise.

Maybe the next generation will do better.

ONCE MORE ON THE MILLION DOLLAR JD DEGREE

In late July, my article “The Dangerous, Million-Dollar Distraction” appeared here before its republication at Am Law Daily and Business Insider. In it, I discussed a study purporting to calculate the lifetime premium of a law degree compared to BA holders. The authors of the study, Professors Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre, weren’t pleased and Am Law Daily has now published their rejoinder. Were it not for their now pervasive claims relating to my alleged confusion, errors, and mistakes, I’d let it pass because the study has already received more attention than it deserves.

The real point

There were no errors in my analysis. My view – expressed in the article – is that the decision to attend law school should not turn on the hope of future financial rewards. In that respect, Simkovic and McIntyre take a strong position that looks like career advice based on predictions about the future: “[M]any college graduates who follow the critics’ advice and skip law school will forego a lucrative career and face higher long-term risks of financial hardship.” (p. 12)

The law is a great profession that I love, but it’s not for everyone. Through the years and for many undergraduates, law school has been a default position for liberal arts majors who can’t decide what to do next. For far too many, life after law school becomes a process whereby great expectations clash with harsh reality in a way that creates career dissatisfaction and worse.

As a consequence, for me, the most important problem with the Simkovic/McIntyre study is that it uses aggregate data in inviting students individually to choose a legal career in the pursuit of financial security or a safe return on their educational investment. That is the wrong reason for anyone to become a lawyer.

Multiple markets

No one talks much about the two markets for law schools. The Simkovic/McIntyre study ignores the differences among schools and, in a response to Professor Deborah Merritt’s critique, Simkovic asserted on Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports blog that he “doesn’t think the evidence for a bimodal distribution of lifetime earnings is very compelling.” One wonders what profession he’s looking at.

For some – especially but not exclusively graduates from top law schools who land (and keep) jobs in big firms – practicing law can be lucrative. But those outcomes are on the far end of a severely skewed distribution of attorney incomes. As NALP data confirm, that skewing begins from the moment of graduation. Big law firm first-year associates earn an average of more than $130,000 yearly and average partner profits for the Am Law 100 exceed $1 million.

But big law attorneys account for only about 10 percent of all practitioners. Far more people – mostly but not exclusively graduates from law schools outside the top group – wind up at the much lower end of the distribution. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for all lawyers in the United States in 2010 was $112,760.

Red herrings or real issues?

Professor Simkovic — initially via Professor Leiter’s blog — called my observations about income distribution a “red herring.” But the real red herring is using the average of a skewed distribution to tout a “Million Dollar Degree” – first in his study’s original title and then persisting in the final sentence of the article’s synopsis. Of course, it attracts more attention than even his dramatically lower median (midpoint) value. (In his Leiter blog post, Simkovic endorsed $330,000 as the lifetime (40-year career) net JD-degree premium for the median (midpoint) of his sample.)

At some point below the 25th percentile, even Simkovic’s study proves that the so-called JD-degree premium turns negative. That includes a lot of lawyers, although the study doesn’t disclose the number.

Contrived controversies

My other observations to which Simkovic took exception — initially in his Leiter blog post and now in his Am Law Daily response — relate to points that his own study acknowledges: the presence of a statistical correlation doesn’t prove causation (p. 25) or predict the future (p. 38); the conclusions of any regression analysis depend on its assumptions (pp. 39-41); none of the attorneys in his 1,382-person sample graduated after 2008 (p. 13 and n. 31; companion slide 13).

(One of the more perplexing criticisms in Simkovic’s Leiter blog post was that I was wrong about half of all JD-degree holders finding themselves below the median for all JD-degree holders. My statement simply embodied the definition of a median – half above and half below that midpoint. His related comment about median incomes relative to bachelor’s degree holders is irrelevant to anything I wrote.)

Others will decide the fate of the Simkovic/McIntyre study as an enduring scholarly work. My views will not move Professor Simkovic or anyone else to a different position on the underlying issue of whether law schools today should rethink their business models in light of the profession’s ongoing transformation.

Reality therapy

But the academic debate has little bearing on my mission. Rather, as I wrote, my concern is for young people who “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.”

Several years ago, I added an undergraduate course to my workload in the hope of providing students with information that might help them in deciding whether to pursue a legal career. The vast majority of those students go on to law school, but with an increased awareness of the road ahead. They understand that even in tough economic times, many JD-degree holders will do well, while others won’t.

The reality of those less fortunate creates challenges for the entire profession because: 1) most prelaw students have a difficult time imagining that they’ll ever find themselves in the lower 25th percentile of anything; and 2) even among the so-called “winners” who wind up a lot higher in the overall income distribution, attorney career dissatisfaction remains widespread.

In short, prelaw students should tread carefully along the path toward law school. The law can lead to a great career, but it’s not for everyone.

Even if the high-end market for new attorneys were booming – which it isn’t – pursuing a JD for financial reasons is a mistake. As a wise person said long ago, ”Not everything that can be counted counts; not everything that counts can be counted.”

PRESIDENT OBAMA AND THE THIRD YEAR OF LAW SCHOOL

My article, “Obama’s Good, and Hopeless, Idea for Law Schools,” appears on The Chronicle of Higher Education blog — “The Conversation.” Here’s the link: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/author/sharper/ 

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.

HOW THE LAWYER BUBBLE GROWS

In June, the legal services sector lost more than 3,000 jobs. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the sector has gained only 1,000 net jobs since June 2012. In the last two months, 6,000 positions disappeared.

No market solutions here

In a properly functioning market, reduced demand would prompt suppliers to cut output in search of equilibrium. But the legal profession consists of several distinct and dysfunctional markets.

For example, there’s plenty of unmet demand for lawyers from people who can’t afford them. Reduced federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation has exacerbated that problem. So has the rising cost of law school tuition and resulting student debt. Over the past 25 years, tuition increases for law school have far outpaced the rest of higher education.

In another segment of the legal market, demand for corporate legal work has been flat for years. But law schools business models generally have focused on filling classrooms, regardless of whether students will ever be able to repay their six-figure educational loans. Because most tuition revenue comes from federally guaranteed loans that survive bankruptcy, schools have no financial incentive to restrict enrollments — that is, until they run out of applicants.

When might that happen? Not soon enough, although recent headlines imply otherwise.

High-profile reductions in class size

Some schools have reduced the size of their entering classes. For example, the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law announced that it is reducing enrollment from the current 1,000 to about 600 — an impressive 40 percent drop.

But as Dan Filler observed at the Faculty Lounge, the reality may be less impressive. Although McGeorge graduated 300 new lawyers annually from 2010 through 2012, its first-year enrollment hasn’t kept pace with those numbers. In 2012, the school had 248 (day and evening) first-year students. In 2011, it had 215. A normalized class enrollment of 200 would be a 20 percent reduction from recent levels. That’s positive, but as explained below, not nearly enough.

About those declining applications

recent Wall Street Journal article about the “plunge” in law school enrollments noted that “applications for the entering class of 2013 were down 36 percent compared with the same point in 2010…” But a more relevant statistic should be more jarring: “Law school first-year enrollments fell 8.5 percent nationwide.”

Here’s another way to look at it: For the fall of 2004 entering class, law schools admitted 55,900 of 98,700 applicants — or about 57 percent. For the fall of 2012 class, law schools admitted 50,600 of 68,000 applicants — almost 75 percent.

About those jobs

The increase in the percentage of admitted applicants is one reason that the lawyer bubble is still growing. Another is the stagnant job market. In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 98,500 net additional attorney positions for the entire decade ending in 2018. In 2010, it revised that estimate downward to project 73,600 net additional positions by the end of 2020.

Even allowing for attrition by retirement, death and otherwise, the BLS now estimates that there will be 235,000 openings for lawyers, judges, and related workers through 2020 — 23,500 a year. Last year alone, law schools graduated 46,000 new attorneys.

If law schools as a group reduced enrollments by 20 percent from last year’s graduating class, they would still produce almost 37,000 new lawyers annually — 370,000 for a decade requiring only 235,000 — not to mention the current backlog that began accumulating even before the Great Recession began.

One more thing

Which takes us back to the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. According to its ABA submission, only 42 percent of its class of 2012 graduates found full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. Even if the school caps entering classes at 200, its resulting placement rate would rise to only 64 percent.

U.S. News rankings considerations loom large in all of this. Law schools fear that reducing LSAT/GPA admission standards would hurt their rankings. In that respect, McGeorge’s class size announcement overshadowed a more unpleasant disclosure that new ABA rules now require: scholarship retention rates.

Many law schools try to enhance their U.S. News rankings by offering entering students with high LSATs so-called merit scholarships. But those scholarships sometimes disappear for years two and three. According to Prof. Jerry Organ’s analysis, only 42 percent of students entering McGeorge in the fall of 2011 kept their first-year scholarships. Eleven schools (out of 140 that offered conditional scholarships) did worse.

The overall picture is ugly. Some schools are laying off faculty and staff to counter the financial impact of reduced enrollments. But they’re also keeping tuition high and spending money on LSAT-enhancing scholarships that disappear after the first year, presumably to be replaced with non-dischargeable loans. Meanwhile, almost all of today’s students are incurring staggering educational debt, but many of them won’t find jobs sufficient to repay it.

That’s not a march toward market equilibrium. It’s a growing bubble.

THE TRUE COST OF THE WEIL LAYOFFS

The Wall Street Journal describes the layoffs of 60 lawyers and 110 staff as “the starkest sign yet that the legal industry continues to struggle after the recession.” But who, exactly, is struggling?

Not the owners of the business. The overall average profits for equity partners in the Am Law 100 reached record levels in 2012. Even during the darkest days of the Great Recession in 2008, PPP for that group remained comfortably above $1.2 million before resuming the climb toward almost $1.5 million last year.

Not equity partners at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, who earned a reported average PPP of $2.2 million in 2012, according the the American Lawyer.

So Who Suffers?

One group of victims consists of 60 young people who had done everything right until everything went wrong for them on June 24. They’re intelligent, ambitious, and hard-working. Exemplary performance in high school earned them places in good colleges where they graduated at the top of their classes. They attended excellent law schools and excelled, even as the competition got tougher.

All of those accomplishments landed them great jobs. In the midst of a dismal legal job market, they went to work at one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms. Making more than $160,000 a year, many believed that soon they might throw off the yoke of six-figure student loan debt.

Now, they’re unemployed.

Another group of victims consists of 110 staffers who also got the boot. According to the NY Times, approximately half of them were secretaries. These behind-the-scenes workers often go unappreciated by lawyers who mistakenly take all of the credit for their own success.

A third group is a reported 10 percent of partners, many of whom who will suffer compensation cuts of “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to the NY Times.

“It’s All About the Future”

Announcing the layoffs, executive partner Barry Wolf described the move as “about the future of the firm and strategically positioning us for the next five years.” But layoffs aren’t about weeding out associates who don’t measure up to the rigorous quality standards necessary for equity partnerships. They’re about matching supply (of associates) with demand (for legal work) according to undisclosed criteria.

In fact, it seems a bit strange to talk about a firm positioning itself for the future while simultaneously dropping a morale bomb on its associates (and some partners) during the height of the summer program. The best and the brightest young prospects are working in big firms where luring that talent into the firms is a top priority. Bad public relations from a high-profile layoff can have a chilling effect that outlasts a single news cycle.

And what is that future going to look like? Will Weil be hiring any new associates over the next 12 months? Or 18 months? Or even 24 months? If so, I know 60 candidates with big firm experience (at Weil) who may be interested.

There is no shortage of current students who will continue to seek high-paying jobs at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. But what if negative publicity dissuades those few with the rare qualities necessary to become superstar partners from even signing up for on-campus interviews? By its very nature, such longer-run damage is impossible to know, much less measure.

Big Law’s Cheerleaders Applaud the Move

Law firm management consultants applauded Weil’s move. That’s not surprising because they have been central players in the profession’s transformation to just another business. They consistently endorse businesslike steps to maximize short-term profits. They expect other firms to follow Weil’s lead, and perhaps some will. Law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser said, “Weil is a bellwether firm and this will be a real wake up call.”

The etymology of bellwether may be relevant. In the mid-15th century, a bell was hung on a wether, a castrated ram that led a domesticated flock. In that way, the noise from the bellwether made it possible to hear the flock coming before anyone saw it.

In an informal Am Law survey, other firm leaders have distanced themselves from Weil. Before following that lead ram, perhaps they’re giving some thought to where it is going.

LAW DEANS SCRAMBLE

Some law school deans are revealing what they regard as innovation in the face of the legal profession’s continuing crisis. Plummeting law school applications have tested their creativity in selling classroom seats. But recent trends — fewer applications amid a dismal job market for law graduates — haven’t deterred some efforts to preserve an unsustainable business model.

Moving through the five stages of grief

As deans confront declining applicant pools, many are moving through the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Previously, I looked at deans in stage 1 — especially those who took to the editorial pages of major newspapers, touting the inherent value of a $150,000 legal degree for students who couldn’t get jobs practicing law. Apply now, they urged, because declining applications improved prospects for admission. Then you can do lots of great things that don’t require a JD.

Case Western Law School Dean Lawrence Mitchell made himself a poster child for such deans in denial, but he wasn’t alone. Other deans and former deans have similarly offered analyses that miss the mark on the causes of the lawyer bubble and offer proposals that distract attention from their own culpability. Some have advanced to stage 2 — anger over the situation and anyone who publicizes it.

From anger to bargaining

A few deans have reached stage 3 — bargaining. Some schools have reduced tuition and/or guaranteed freezes during a student’s three years. But Touro Law recently announced a special kind of bargain that targets the least informed potential applicants who are most vulnerable to law schools’ superficial sales pitches.

Under a partnership with the University of Central Florida, prospective law students can apply to an accelerated program whereby they attend UCF for three years and then complete their fourth year at Touro Law. They would receive their UCF bachelor’s degree upon completion of their 1L year at Touro.

Quite a deal, right?

Some things you should know

Touro Law inhabits the world of U.S. News and World Report’s unranked nether regions. Readers know that I’m no fan of those rankings, but it’s safe to say that no one would regard Touro as a top law school by any measure. According to U.S. News, it accepted 64 percent of all applicants last year.

Touro’s recent trends are especially revealing. (The following statistics come from the archives of the LSAC “Official Law School Guide.”)

In 2005, the school awarded 158 JD degrees. Tuition was around $26,000 a year.

In 2009, the school awarded 200 JDs. Annual tuition had increased to more than $36,000.

In 2011, the school awarded 221 JDs. Sixty percent found full-time long-term jobs requiring that degree.

In 2012, the school awarded 244 JDs, but only 53 percent had long-term full-time jobs requiring a JD. Tuition is now $43,000 a year.

In other words, as the Great Recession worsened and the demand for lawyers collapsed — especially for graduates of places such as Touro Law — the school increased both tuition and class size, even as its ability to place graduates in legal jobs declined.

The business model at work

Perhaps it’s unfair to single out Touro for behavior that has pervaded legal education: increasing class size and raising tuition as demand for new lawyers declined. But the school’s latest initiative invites close scrutiny of its motives.

According to Touro Law’s new dean, Patricia Salkin, “It’s a financial bargain for the UCF undergraduates and takes some pressure off the law school application process.”

My guess is that it’s a financial bargain for Touro Law, too, especially if it gets to keep most of the tuition that the UCF students pay to attend first year law school classes. (Annual tuition at UCF is $6,200 for residents; $22,300 for non-residents — compared to $43,000 for Touro Law.)

As for relieving the pressure of the law school application process, Touro can claim that benefit for itself, too. There’s nothing like locking in a law student three years before he or she might otherwise apply.

What are we doing to our kids?

It’s bad enough that current UCF undergraduates are eligible for this “fast-track program.” (Even the name implies a selectivity that sounds enticing, doesn’t it?) But encouraging — or even allowing — woefully uninformed high school students to apply to law school as entering UCF freshmen is something else.

The next step for some law schools seems painfully clear: setting up recruiting tables in middle school cafeterias across the country.

THREE EMBARRASSING DATA POINTS

Three recently released numbers tell an unhappy tale of what ails the legal profession in particular and society in general. Specifically, those data points reveal profound intergenerational antagonisms that are getting worse.

Dismal job prospects persist

First, the ABA reports that only 56 percent of law school graduates in the class of 2012 secured full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree. The good news is that this result is no worse than last year’s. The bad news is the number of 2012 law graduates reached an all-time record high — more than 46,000. The even worse news is that the graduating class of 2013 is expected to be even bigger.

Sure, the number of students taking the LSAT has trended downward. So has the number of law school applicants. But students seeking to attend law school still outnumber the available places. Meanwhile, the number of attorneys working in big law firms has not yet returned to pre-recession levels of 2007. If, as many hope, the market for attorneys is moving toward an equilibrium between supply and demand, it has a long way to go.

Law school for all the wrong reasons

A second data point is even more distressing. According to a survey that test-prep company Kaplan Inc. conducted, 43 percent of pre-law students plan to use their degrees to find jobs in the business world, rather than in the legal industry. Even more poignantly, 42 percent said they would attend business school instead of law school, were they not already “set to go to law school.”

I don’t know what “set to go” means to these individuals, but if they want to go into business, first spending more than $100,000 and three years of their lives on a legal degree makes no sense. That’s especially true in light of another survey result: Only 5 percent said they were pursuing a career primarily for the money; 71 percent said they were “motivated by pursuing a career they are passionate about.”

Maybe these conflicted pre-law students are confused by the chorus of law school deans now writing regularly that a legal degree is a valuable vehicle to other pursuits. Let’s hope not. Many deans are simply trying to drum up student demand for their schools in the face of declining applicant pools.

Follow the money

The third data point relates to the money that fuels this dysfunctional system: federal loan dollars that are disconnected from law school accountability for student outcomes. Recently, the New York Times reported that on July 1, many student loan rates were set to double — from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

Young law school graduates are among the unenviable one-percenters in this group because 85 percent of them hold, on average, more than $100,000 in debt (compared to the overall average of $27,000 for all students). Like all other educational loans, those debts survive a bankruptcy filing.

In the current economic environment, an investor would search in vain for a guaranteed 6.8 percent return and virtually no risk. According to one estimate cited in the Times article, the federal government makes 36 cents on every student loan dollar it puts out.

Kids as profit centers

Ironically, those who favor raising the current 3.4 percent interest rate on many federal student loans to 6.8 percent are the same people who express concerns that growing federal deficits will saddle the next generation. The reality is that we already treat that generation as a profit center. For too many people, there’s money to be made in sustaining the lawyer bubble.

Until it bursts.

THE LAWYER BUBBLE — Early Reviews and Upcoming Events

The New York Times published my op-ed, “The Tyranny of the Billable Hour,” tackling the larger implications of the recent DLA Piper hourly billing controversy.

And there’s this from Bloomberg Business Week: “Big Law Firms Are in ‘Crisis.’ Retired Lawyer Says.”

In related news, with the release of my new book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis, my weekly posts will give way (temporarily) to a growing calendar of events, including:

TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2013, 10:00 am to 11:00 am (CDT)
Illinois Public Media
“Focus” with Jim Meadows
WILL-AM – 580 (listen online at http://will.illinois.edu/focus)

TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2013, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (CDT)
“Think” with Krys Boyd
KERA – Public Media for North Texas – 90.1 FM (online at http://www.kera.org/think/)

THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 2013, 11:00 am to Noon (EDT)
Washington, DC
The Diane Rehm Show
WAMU (88.5 FM in DC area) and NPR

FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 2013, 10:45 am to 11:00 am (EDT)
New York City
The Brian Lehrer Show
WNYC/NPR (93.9 FM/820 AM in NYC area)
(http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/)

SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 2013, Noon (EDT)
New Hampshire Public Radio
“Word of Mouth” with Virginia Prescott
WEVO – 89.1 FM in Concord; available online at http://nhpr.org/post/lawyer-bubble)

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10, 2013, 8:00 am to 9:00 am (CDT)
The Joy Cardin Show
Wisconsin Public Radio (available online at http://www.wpr.org/cardin/)

FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2013
The Shrinking Pyramid: Implications for Law Practice and the Legal Profession” — Panel discussion
Georgetown University Law Center
Center for the Study of the Legal Profession
600 New Jersey Avenue NW
Location: Gewirz – 12th floor
Washington, D.C.

TUESDAY, APRIL 23, 2013, 7:00 pm (CDT) (C-SPAN 2 is tentatively planning to cover this event)
The Book Stall at Chestnut Court
811 Elm Street
Winnetka, IL

Here are some early reviews:

The Lawyer Bubble is an important book, carefully researched, cogently argued and compellingly written. It demonstrates how two honorable callings – legal education and the practice of law – have become, far too often, unscrupulous rackets.”
—Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent and other novel

“Harper is a seasoned insider unafraid to say what many other lawyers in his position might…written with keen insight and scathing accusations…. Harper brings his analytical and persuasive abilities to bear in a highly entertaining and riveting narrative…. The Lawyer Bubbleis recommended reading for anyone working in a law related field. And for law school students—especially prospective ones—it really should be required reading.”
New York Journal of Books

“Anyone looking into a career in law would be well advised to read this thoroughly eye-opening warning.”
Booklist, starred review

“[Harper] is perfectly positioned to reflect on alarming developments that have brought the legal profession to a most unfortunate place…. Essential reading for anyone contemplating a legal career.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“[Harper] burns his bridges in this scathing indictment of law schools and big law firms…. his insights and admonitions are consistently on point.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Imagine that the elite lawyers of BigLaw and the legal academy were put on trial for their alleged negligence and failed stewardship. Imagine further that the State had at its disposal one of the nation’s most tenacious trial lawyers to doggedly build a complete factual record and then argue the case. The result would be The Lawyer Bubble. If I were counsel to the elite lawyers of BigLaw and the legal academy, I would advise my clients to settle the case.”
—William D. Henderson, Director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession and Professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law

“With wit and insight,The Lawyer Bubble offers a compelling portrait of the growing crisis in legal education and the practice of law. This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the profession or contemplating a legal career.”
—Deborah L. Rhode, Professor of Law and Director of the Center on the Legal Profession, Stanford University

“This is a fine and important book, thoughtful and beautifully written. It makes the case – in a responsible and sober tone – that we are producing far too many lawyers for far too small a segment of American society. It is a must-read for leaders of law firms, law schools, and the bar, as the legal profession continues its wrenching transition from a profession into just another business.”
—Daniel S. Bowling III, Senior Lecturing Fellow, Duke Law School

“In this superb book, Steven Harper documents, ties together and suggests remedies for the deceit that motivates expanding law school enrollment in the face of a shrinking job market, the gaming of law school rankings and the pernicious effect of greed on the leadership of many of our nation’s leading law firms. The lessons he draws are symptomatic, and go well beyond the documented particulars.”
—Robert Helman, Partner and former Chairman (1984-98), Mayer Brown LLP; Lecturer, University of Chicago Law School

“Every sentient lawyer realizes that the legal profession is in crisis, but nobody explains the extent of the problem as well as Steven Harper. Fortunately, he also proposes some solutions – so there is still room for hope. This is an essential book.”
—Steven Lubet, author of Fugitive Justice and Lawyers’ Poker

“Steven Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble is an expression of tough love for the law, law firms and the people who work in them. The clear message is take control of your destiny and your firm to avoid the serious jeopardy that confronts far too many firms today. Whether you are a partner, associate, or law student, you should read this compassionate and forceful work.”
—Edwin B. Reeser, Former managing partner, author, and consultant on law practice management

“Harper chronicles the disruption of his once-genteel profession with considerable sadness, and places the blame squarely at the wing-tipped feet of two breeds of scoundrel: law school deans, and executive committees that have run big law firms …” –”Bar Examined” – Book Review in The Washington Monthly (March/April 2013)

PARDON MY CYNICISM

A friend sent me a letter that he received recently from Wake Forest University, where his son is a sophomore. Actually, it came from the Law School, which was “excited to announce” a “Pre-Law Program for Undergraduates.” Last summer, the school offered a single course, “Legal Theory, Practice, and Communication.” It was such a hit that the school has now added a second summer prelaw class, “Advocacy, Debate, and the Law.”

Noble motives

The letter outlines a laudable premise: “The primary purpose of this Program is to show undergraduates what law school is like. Some college students in the past have applied to law school simply because they could not decide what else to do after graduation.”

So far, so good. The letter then acknowledges that law school “is now far too expensive to engage in a ‘test drive’ for a whole year. This Program gives  college students a realistic view of law student life and educates them about the career opportunities of lawyers.”

Again, so far, so good.

A worthy endeavor

Adequately informing undergraduates tracking themselves to law school is a vitally important educational mission that is long overdue. Colleges and universities have largely refrained from efforts to penetrate the confirmation bias of young people who think they’ll lead lives depicted in Law & Order, The Good Wife, and Suits. A legal career can be personally and professionally rewarding, but it’s not for everyone.

Wake Forest boasts that its program “gives college students a realistic view of law student life and educates them about the career opportunities of lawyers.” It’s nice to give undergraduates a taste of the Socratic method so it doesn’t upend them in law school. But other aspects are far more important.

Does the program include data on new graduates’ dismal job opportunities? For example, nine months after graduation, only 56 percent of the Wake Forest Law School class of 2011 secured full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree — the same as the overall average for all law schools.

Likewise, does Wake Forest’s prelaw program cover the staggering six-figure debt that now burdens the vast majority of new attorneys generally, whose median starting salaries have fallen to $60,000? Does it discuss the widespread career dissatisfaction among practicing attorneys? Let’s hope so.

Troublesome turns

Assuming Wake Forest has, indeed, included these and other essential elements of a truly valuable prelaw curriculum, other aspects of the program suggest competing agendas at work.

Why does Wake Forest offer its prelaw program only in the summer — at a cost of $3,240 per course? (“An interested student would receive maximum benefit from enrolling in both courses,” the letter notes.) Why not offer a course that provides meaningful insights into law school and the profession during the regular academic year? And don’t tell me that professorial teaching loads have become too burdensome.

Another item gave me pause. The press release announcing the Wake Forest program included this enticing remark from the law professor who co-teaches the classes: “Since we will have gotten to know the students, we will also gladly write letters of recommendation about the student’s ability to do law school work.”

His colleague added this: “In fact, we are very excited that one of our students, who applied to law school this year with our help, was accepted at several top-ranked law schools.”

Those comments don’t neutralize student confirmation bias; they reinforce it.

Closing the deal

And then there’s this: The law school admissions office “will waive the $60.00 application fee for any student who attended the summer Program this year who later applies to Wake Forest Law School.” More applications — even from unqualified students — lower a school’s acceptance rate and thereby raise its U.S. News ranking.

But that’s not all. Again, directly from the press release: “[I]f that student is admitted and enrolls at Wake Forest law school, the student will receive a tuition credit for the first year equal to the amount spent for tuition in attending the summer program. That’s right—you could get the law school to pay you back for the money spent on tuition this year for the Summer Pre-Law Program!”

Here are the only words missing from the pitch: Act now while supplies last!

Something is amiss when the lines used to sell a prelaw education read like a late-night infomercial for steak knives.

SOMEBODY’S CHILD

Nine years ago, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Now he wants Congress to repeal the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that deny federal recognition to such marriages. Apparently, his reversal on this issue began two years ago when his college freshman son told Portman and his wife that he was gay.

Plenty of prominent national figures have similarly changed their views. The tide of history seems overwhelming, even to conservative commentator George Will. Others can debate whether Portman and those who have announced newly acquired positions favoring gay rights are courageous, hypocrites, opportunists, or something else.

For me, the more important point is that his own child’s connection to the issue caused Portman to think differently about it. Applied to lawyers, the question become simple:

What if the profession’s influential players treated the young people pursuing a legal career as their own children?

Portman’s explanation

In 2011, Portman knew that his son was gay when 100 law graduates walked out of his commencement address at the University of Michigan.

“But you know,” he told CNN recently, “what happened to me is really personal. I mean, I hadn’t thought a lot about this issue. Again, my focus has been on other issues over my public policy career.”

His key phrases are pregnant with larger implications: “[W]hat happened to me is really personal….I hadn’t thought a lot about this issue.”

Start with law school deans

As the lawyer bubble grew over the past decade, some deans and university administrators might have behaved differently if a “really personal” dimension required them to think “a lot” about their approaches. Perhaps they would have jettisoned a myopic focus on maximizing their law school rankings and revenues.

At a minimum, most deans probably would have disclosed earlier than 2012 that fewer than half of recent graduates had long-term full-time jobs requiring a legal degree. It seems unlikely that, year after year, they would have told their own kids that those employment rates exceeded 90 percent. Perhaps, too, deans would have resisted rather than embraced skyrocketing tuition increases that have produced six-figure non-dischargeable educational debt for 85 percent of today’s youngest attorneys.

Then consider big firm senior partners

At the economic pinnacle of the profession, big firms have become a particular source of not only attorney wealth, but also career dissatisfaction. In substantial part, both phenomena happened — and continue to happen — because managing partners have obsessed over short-term metrics aimed at maximizing current year profits and mindless growth.

For example, the billable hour is the bane of every lawyer’s (and most clients’) existence, but it’s lucrative for equity partners. If senior partners found themselves pushing their own kids to increase their hours as a way to boost those partners’ already astonishing profits, maybe they’d rethink the worst consequences of a destructive regime.

Similarly, the average attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratio for the Am Law 100 has doubled since 1985 (from 1.75 to 3.5). Perhaps managing partners wouldn’t have been so quick to pull up the ladder on lawyers who sat at their Thanksgiving tables every year, alongside those managing partners’ grandchildren who accompanied them. Not every young associate in a big firm should advance to equity partner. But offering a 5 to 10 percent chance of success following 7 to 12 years of hard work isn’t a motivator. It invites new attorneys to prepare for failure.

Finally, compared to the stability of a functional family, the current big law firm lateral partner hiring frenzy adopts the equivalent of periodic divorce as a cultural norm. Pursued as a growth strategy, it destroys institutional continuity, cohesion, community, and morale. Ironically, according to Professor William Henderson’s recent American Lawyer article “Playing Not to Lose,” it offers little or no net economic value in return.

Adopting a family outlook or a parental perspective isn’t a foolproof cure for what ails the legal profession. Indeed, running law schools and big firms according to the Lannister family’s values (“The Game of Thrones”) — or those of Don Corleone’s (“The Godfather”) — might not change things very much at all.

It’s also worth remembering that Oedipus was somebody’s child, too.

ANOTHER LAW SCHOOL DEAN MISSES THE TARGET

Today’s chapter in the continuing story of proposals to reform legal education comes from James L. Huffman, emeritus dean at Lewis & Clark Law School. His February 20 Wall Street Journal op-ed recommends eliminating ABA law school accreditation requirements. Maybe that’s a good idea, but not for the reasons that Huffman offers.

Mischaracterizing the crisis

Huffman notes that the sharp decline in the number of law school applicants has created “a true crisis, and law schools are scrambling to figure out how to manage with fewer tuition-paying students.” He proposes to end that crisis by helping marginal law schools devise a way to remain in business. Specifically, he thinks that removing most accreditation requirements would unleash a wave of innovation in legal education and “let a thousand flowers bloom.”

Here’s a better idea: prune the garden.

A thread of insight

Staggering student debt accompanying dismal job prospects for recent graduates causes Huffman to lament the oversupply of lawyers. He suggests that the ABA’s task force “should start by looking within: The organization is a major source of the problem.” Then he lambasts the organization’s accreditation standards as too restrictive.

Huffman’s non sequitur fails to mention the ABA’s most obvious contribution to attorney oversupply: accrediting too many new schools — 15 since 2003 alone. Likewise, Huffman observes correctly that the ABA has become a victim of regulatory capture, but he doesn’t connect it directly to the worst consequences of that victimization: deans free to engage in deceptive behavior to fill their classrooms. Graduate employment rates looked great when schools could include short-term and part-time jobs, work that didn’t require a law degree, and temporary positions that the schools themselves had created.

Missing the real target

Why did deans do it? Because everybody did. Greater transparency risked deterring applicants, which had implications for a school’s U.S. News ranking. Unilateral candor threatened the business model.

Likewise, the rankings methodology has created powerful incentives to maximize spending on expensive new facilities. No ABA accreditation standard requires an established law school to construct a new library. But building one can help to attract applicants, and its added cost boosts the “average expenditures per student” component of a school’s ranking.

Who’s to blame?

Huffman is correct that the ABA has failed the profession. But so have deans who have allowed U.S. News rankings criteria to displace their independent judgment. Rankings have become central to their business models and the youngest generation of lawyers is paying the price.

Some metrics relating to emeritus dean Huffman’s own school prove it:

– At the time of Huffman’s op-ed, the “Admissions” section of Lewis & Clark’s website displayed this headline: “Law school surges in U.S. News & World Report rankings.” The link took the reader to an article about the school’s nine-place jump to 58th in the 2013 edition.

– Full-time tuition and fees at Lewis & Clark currently exceed $38,000 — a 50 percent increase over 2005, when it was around $25,000.

– Lewis & Clark’s annual entries in the 2006 through 2012 ABA Official Law School Guides included employment rates nine months after graduation ranging from 89 to 97 percent. But like most law schools, it achieved those spectacular results using the ABA’s expansive definition of employed. Under the new rules first applicable to the class of 2011, nine months after graduation only 46 percent of Lewis & Clark graduates had full-time long-term jobs requiring a legal degree.

Reality therapy

Huffman’s rhetoric about ABA accreditation requirements as entry barriers that inhibit competition and innovation misses the mark. Allowing schools to experiment with what he calls a “bonanza of legal education alternatives” ignores a harsh reality: There aren’t enough law jobs for the number of graduates that schools already produce, and there won’t be for a long time.

Allowing schools to increase their use of cheaper non-tenured faculty and to offer on-line classes, as Huffman suggests, won’t solve that problem. In fact, absent other necessary reforms, cost reductions leading to lower tuition would likely increase the oversupply of lawyers.

The plethora of deans publishing op-eds in major newspapers presents a new danger. When they Identify false issues and propose ineffectual reforms, they divert needed attention from the real causes of the current crisis. A thorough search for the origins of the lawyer bubble should lead most deans to a painful encounter with a mirror.

That’s an op-ed I’m eager to read.

MORE LAW SCHOOL NON-REFORM

Every week, there’s a new proposal to reform legal education. In a recent New York Times op-ed, John J. Farmer Jr., dean of the Rutgers School of Law in Newark, offered his suggestion: two-year apprenticeships.

Most deans operate in good faith and are genuinely concerned about the current state of the profession. In fact, a core element of dean Farmer’s idea is quite sound. Hands-on training was a good idea when Clarence Darrow studied under the tutelage of a practicing attorney, and it still is. The British placement system of training contracts has kept its lawyer bubble smaller than ours.

But Darrow began his apprenticeship after one year of classes. Farmer’s suggestion of a two-year residency following three years of law school misses the mark, as do his predictions about what it would accomplish.

Problems of mysterious origin

Farmer begins where he must: a collapsing job market; law school deception in creating the oversupply of lawyers; record tuition levels and student debt. But he ignores an important question: How did those things happen? The answer: a flawed law school business model.

Consider Farmer’s point about law school deception. For years, his school joined most others in reporting 90-plus percent employment rates for the newest graduates. In the 2008 ABA Official Law School Guide, Rutgers-Newark showed a 93.3 percent employment rate; as recently as the 2012 Official Guide, it was 91.3 percent.

Starting in 2012, the ABA required schools to reveal which graduates had long-term full-time jobs requiring a legal degree. Rutgers-Newark hit the overall average for all law schools: only 56 percent for the class of 2011.

As for lawyer oversupply, Rutgers-Newark has been a continuing contributor. According to the 2008 Official Guide, Rutgers-Newark matriculated 182 full-time students from 3,010 applicants. Since then, the number of applicants has declined dramatically, but the number of enrollments hasn’t.

The 2013 Official Guide reports that Rutgers-Newark received only 2,218 applicants to its full-time program. Yet the school still matriculated 174 new students. In other words, since 2007, the number of applicants has dropped by 800 (26 percent), but first-year enrollment has declined by only eight students (4 percent).

Farmer also laments record levels of tuition and resulting student debt. The 2008 Official Guide listed Rutgers-Newark’s full-time non-resident tuition and fees at $27,976; residents paid $19,623. Today, non-resident tuition at the school exceeds $37,000 — a 33 percent jump. Resident tuition has increased by almost 30 percent and now exceeds $25,000.

Non-solutions

Ignoring the role of law schools in creating the current crisis leads Farmer to a proposal that won’t solve it. He suggests scrapping the system whereby big firms “hire graduates from a few select schools, paying them exorbitantly.” In its place, he wants a residency program that would allow law firms “to hire more lawyers, at lower rates, and give talented graduates of less prestigious institutions a chance to shine.”

During his proposed two-year apprenticeships, students would work for minimal wages (“repaying their debts could be suspended, as it is for medical residents”). At the end of the period, firms “could then select whom to keep.” For the losers in that contest, job searches would start anew.

Not gonna happen

Apart from retaining the flawed law school business model that has taken the profession to its current state, Farmer’s plan requires a remarkable leap of faith in big law firm behavior. In particular, he hopes that firms would charge lower hourly rates for new associates and, as a result, hire more of them.

Unlike many law school deans, Farmer has extensive experience as a practicing lawyer. But when he tries to predict the behavior of big law firm leaders, he enters tricky terrain.

The prevailing law firm business model perverts the definition of productivity to mean total billable hours, rather than the efficiency with which lawyer inputs produce outputs for clients. The model emphasizes the metrics of near-term profits at the expense of longer-run values. It would view reducing associate labor costs as a godsend to its bottom line, not as a reason to spread the same amount of existing work among more lawyers.

Farmer doesn’t suggest reducing tuition, enrollment, or the duration of law school itself. Such steps would challenge the law school business model directly. That’s the real lesson of dean Farmer’s op-ed: Until deans revisit their roles in creating the current mess, their proposed solutions are likely to remain wanting.

Dean Farmer suggests, “Legal education has not so much failed the profession as mirrored it.” Actually, it’s done both.

LAW SCHOOL DISEQUILIBRIUM

It sure seems odd. On January 30, The New York Times reported this year’s dramatic decline in law school applications. A day later, a Wall Street Journal article described the many new schools that are in the works. Economists might call that “market disequilibrium.” More appropriate concepts might be incentivized idiocy and subsidized stupidity. U.S. News rankings incentivize the idiocy; taxpayer dollars subsidize the stupidity.

The WSJ article suggested that some administrators began implementing plans to add law schools “before the current drop [in applicants] became apparent.” However, the two schools in the article, Indiana Tech and the University of North Texas-Dallas College of Law, don’t have that excuse.

Indiana Tech didn’t complete its feasibility study of a proposed new law school until May 2011. The Texas legislature authorized the creation of the UNT-Dallas College of Law in 2009, as the Great Recession deepened. In the 2011-2012 state budget, it earmarked $5 million in funding. The school plans to start classes in 2014.

As for other new schools, what exactly wasn’t apparent when they came to life? Only obvious things that those responsible for creating the schools didn’t want to see.

Follow four numbers

First, from 2003 to 2008, the number of law school applicants dropped steadily — from 100,000 to 83,000. As the Great Recession made law school an attractive place to wait out a dismal economy, total applicants rose to 88,000 before resuming a downward trajectory, perhaps to as few as 54,000 for fall 2013 admission.

Second, in the face of an applicant pool that began shrinking ten years ago, first-year enrollment from 2003 to 2009 remained around 49,000. Refugees from the Great Recession pushed it over 51,000 in 2009 and 2010 before it settled back to 48,700 in 2011.

Third, when these 40,000+ students graduate, there will be full-time legal jobs for about half of them. But that’s not a new development, only a newly disclosed one. To game the U.S. News rankings, law schools have been fudging their employment numbers for years, and they know it.

Finally, at the end of 2003, there were 187 accredited law schools in the United States. Today, there are 201. Attempting to convey the magnitude of the current crisis, University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter told the Times that he expects “as many as 10 schools to close over the next decade.” But over the past ten years alone, the ABA has accredited 14.

What are the lessons?

First, a decline in applications alone doesn’t assure any change in the profession’s errant direction. The real-life experiment from 2003 to 2008 proves that for as long as the number of applicants exceeds the number of available places in law school, academic leaders who think they can make money on law students will continue to build schools.

Second, in an effort to reverse the downward trend in applications, some deans beat the bushes for additional students, even as the job market for their graduates shrinks. Case Western Reserve Law School dean Lawrence Mitchell’s recent op-ed in the NY Times is an example. Another example is an article that Professor Carla Pratt, associate dean of academic affairs at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, wrote last September for The National Law Journal: “Law School Is Still a Good Investment for African-Americans.

Yet another example comes from the UNT-Dallas College of Law. According to the January 31 WSJ article, professor and associate dean for academic affairs Ellen S. Pryor, acknowledges that applications have plummeted, but “the fact that the nationwide numbers are down doesn’t dishearten us from thinking we’ll get really good students and fulfill our mission.”

And what might that mission be? According to the Journal, UNT-Dallas hopes to draw a different pool of applicants than other north Texas law schools. In other words, even undergraduates who never before gave serious thought to law school should prepare themselves for an onslaught of sales pitches.

Limited accountability

Here’s one reason for the profound disconnect: Administrators and deans maintain an unhealthy distance from the economic hardships that their worst decisions inflict on graduates. Federally-guaranteed student loans fuel a system that relieves law schools of financial accountability.

Imagine how the world might change if the government as guarantor had recourse to a student’s law school for that graduate’s subsequent loan default. In the absence of such a market solution, educational debt collection has become a growth industry as law schools avoid the messes they’ve made.

Welcome to The Lawyer Bubble.

JUXTAPOSITIONS

Shortly after Thanksgiving, a California court denied Thomas Jefferson Law School’s motion to dismiss its alumni’s fraud claims. The school made headlines in early 2011 when some graduates claimed that misleading employment statistics caused them to incur staggering debt for a degree that didn’t lead to a legal job. It was the first school to face such a suit and is now the third one to lose a motion to dismiss the claims.

Reasonable consumers?

Last summer, two other law schools failed to get the cases against them thrown out: the University of San Francisco and Golden Gate University. A California state court judge hearing both cases ruled that whether those schools’ representations were “likely to deceive a reasonable consumer is a question of fact.”

The court observed, “[P]laintiffs allege that they were in fact deceived by the statements they attribute to defendant, and there is nothing before me to suggest that any of the plaintiffs were not reasonable consumers of a law school education.”

Sophisticated consumers?

The California court in the USF and Golden Gate University cases distinguished an earlier ruling that went the other way. In a similar case against New York Law School (not NYU), a New York state court judge described prospective law students as “a sophisticated subset of education consumers.” He thought that they should have looked more carefully at the numbers that the school touted, as well as data available to them from other sources. The losing plaintiffs have asked the appellate court to take another look at the issue.

Likewise, courts in Michigan and Illinois have dismissed four other lawsuits against Thomas M. Cooley Law School, DePaul University College of Law, John Marshall Law School, and Chicago-Kent Law School. Wait for the results of more appeals before accepting as definitive the schools’ quick claims of vindication.

Who’s right about these prospective consumers of legal education? Are they a special class of individuals who possess unique skills in evaluating law school representations about their graduates’ fate? Do they have special strength that allows them to resist the promise of a well-paying legal job as the reward for three years’ work and a $100,000+ investment?

Either way, aren’t they somebody’s kids?

Today, it’s seems easy to say that students who believed law school claims of 90+% employment rates and six-figure starting salaries for their graduates should have known better. But abandon such hindsight for a moment and think back to 2004, when some of the current plaintiffs were thinking about attending law school.

The lawyer bubble was growing, but until the summer of 2012 the ABA didn’t require schools to provide meaningful employment data to prospective students. Full-time, part-time, non-degree-required, and law school-funded positions were lumped together to create a rosy picture of job security that was, in fact, a cruel illusion. As the Great Recession began in 2007, that picture looked even more appealing to young people who were looking for any employment lifeboat in a sinking economy.

Accountability

So far, no plaintiff has prevailed on the merits of any claim against any law school. The preliminary rulings in California mean only that those plaintiffs get an opportunity to prove their cases. As that process unfolds, no one should let would-be law students off the hook completely. But confirmation bias is a powerful force; it takes uncommon perception to see things that contradict preconceived notions, including some students’ naive dreams about what life as a lawyer might mean.

If law schools continue to act without any serious accountability for their roles in creating the massive and growing oversupply of lawyers, greater student introspection alone won’t solve the problem. Case Western Reserve Law School Dean Lawrence E. Mitchell proved that point in his recent (and flawed) New York Times op-ed, “Law School is Worth the Money.” For those who prefer data and analysis to self-serving salesmanship, Vanderbilt Law School professor Herwig Schlunk has a response: for too many young lawyers, it isn’t.

For far too long, deans have avoided accountability for behavior that has created the lawyer bubble.  At long last, perhaps some judges will correct that injustice.

THE LAWYER BUBBLE

Case Western Reserve Law School Dean Lawrence E. Mitchell’s recent op-ed in the New York Times proves that, like many law school deans, he is living in a bubble. Indeed, the views he expresses are one reason that I wrote THE LAWYER BUBBLE – A Profession in Crisiswhich Basic Books will publish in April 2013. (Another reason is the troubling transformation of most big law firms, but that’s for another day.)

Mitchell’s spirited defense in “Law School Is Worth the Money” concludes that the “overwrought atmosphere has created irrationalities that prevent talented students from realizing their ambitions.” Apparently, he thinks everyone should just calm down, ignore facts, and keep pushing naive undergraduates into law schools, without regard to what will happen to them thereafter. He’s wrong.

Employment

Mitchell argues that a legal career is no worse choice than any other because the job market is bad in many industries. He notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in the number of lawyers’ jobs from 2010 to 2020 at 10 percent — about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Here’s the thing: that 10 percent growth is for the entire ten years from 2010 to 2020 – a total net increase in the number of lawyer jobs of 73,600. And that number is down from a 2008 BLS estimate of 98,500. As 44,000 new law graduates hit the market each year, law schools are pumping out enough new attorneys for a decade every two years.

Other studies factoring in attrition suggest that, given the mismatch between supply and demand, there might be law jobs for about half of all graduates over the next 10 years. Case Western Reserve, where Mitchell is dean, is typical of mid-range law schools: it’s a fine institution, but according to the ABA, nine months after graduation, only 94 of the 201-member class of 2011 had full-time long-term job requiring bar passage.

Excessive tuition

With respect to the cost of a legal education, Mitchell says that “one report shows that tuition at private law schools has increased 160 percent from 1985 to 2011.” He doesn’t identify his source, but according to the ABA, median private law school tuition in 1985 was $7,385. In 2011, it was $39,496 — a more than 400 percent increase. The rate of increase for resident public law school tuition was far greater. Assuming that he’s adjusting for constant dollars, that’s still a whopping increase.

Then Mitchell compares legal education with medical schools where, even by his calculations, tuition has increased less (63 percent since 1985). But he excuses law school excesses by arguing that medical schools began the period with average tuition four times higher. That’s a false equivalence.

It should cost far less to train a lawyer than a doctor — as it did in 1985. But today it doesn’t. Why not? Because law schools have become cash cows, returning as much as 30 percent of tuition revenues to their universities. Moreover, pandering to U.S. News ranking criteria encourages law school expenditures without regard to value added. Federally guaranteed student loans fuel the system in ways that relieve law schools from meaningful accountability as they glut the market.

Debt

Mitchell dismisses the fact that average law school debt exceeds $125,000 with the cavalier assertion that “the average lawyer’s salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.” He notes that attorneys’ average starting salaries have increased 125 percent since 1985.

Unfortunately, the average includes only those who actually have lawyer jobs, and it doesn’t consider the fact that, as Above the Law’s Elie Mystal emphasizes often, the average masks the bimodal distribution of attorney income. Thanks to the skewing effect of big law firm compensation (where only 15 percent of lawyers practice), most lawyers earn far less than the industry average. Moreover, median starting salaries for new attorneys have been dropping like a rock — from $72,000 to $60,000 since 2009. Meanwhile, law school tuition keeps going the other way.

Mitchell’s real complaint is probably that prospective law students are finally beginning to see the legal world more clearly and, at long last, the results may be showing up in reduced applications to schools below the top tier. But he need not worry because ongoing market distortions make equilibrium far, far away. In 2012, almost 70,000 prospective lawyers applied for almost 50,000 law school spots — even though there may be legal jobs for only half of them.

Armed with complete information about the challenges and rewards of a legal career, the best and the brightest future lawyers will still enter the profession. They’ll incur six-figure debt that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy because they’ll conclude that the investment is worth the risk — but they’ll consider the risk. Making an informed decision requires them to separate facts from magical thinking. For that, they’re on their own because, as Dean Mitchell reveals, most deans don’t — or won’t.

A COMMENDABLE (AND COURAGEOUS) COMMENT AWARD

As the executive director of National Association for Law Placement (NALP) — the organization that sets the rules whereby big law firm employers and their prospective new hires find each other — James Leipold has a tough job. Sometimes, NALP has looked like a victim of regulatory capture. Students’ interests have often taken a back seat to two constituencies that wield far more economic power, namely, law schools and big law firms.

Such power was one reason that NALP initially “back-pedaled” in early 2010, when big firms balked at NALP’s request to provide detailed information about equity partners’ gender and race. At the time, Leipold acknowledged that some firms threatened to withhold all information from the annual NALP employer directory, which “represents an important revenue source for us.”

Another example of big law firm influence over NALP is the evolution of the rules governing employment offers — including the powerlessness of students when a big firm unilaterally rescinds a previously accepted one. But NALP’s shortcomings are topics for another day.

Today’s commendation goes to Leipold because he recently stood up to deans who wanted him to provide prospective law students with a “better message” about the legal job market. That is, they wanted him to lie. Leipold said he was “surprised” at this turn of events, including deans who asked him to describe the job market as “good.” He refused. But his real act of courage was in revealing that some deans were applying such pressure. They should be ashamed. And they should be named.

Nothing new

Many deans have been hyping their schools with misleading employment statistics for a long time. Truth is finally catching up to a lot of them, notably with the ABA’s newly required data. Harsh reality hit with the news that, nine months after graduation, slightly more than half of all 2011 law graduates were able to get full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage. The recent past has been bad and the current picture is ugly. So some deans have tried to shape perceptions about the future.

Leipold rightly resisted. The employment prospects for law graduates generally are not likely to brighten any time soon. Leipold could have said even more about that: there are still far more law school applicants than places for them; most estimates project that over the next decade, schools will produce twice as many law graduates as the number of legal jobs available for them. Even at the so-called pinnacle of the profession — big law firms — the total number of attorneys has yet to return to pre-recession levels.

The case for names

What will stop this insanity? Unfortunately, the problematic deans are responding to institutional pressures. That’s because law schools have become large cash cows for their universities. The impulse to run a school as a business that maximizes short-term profits is irresistible to them and their superiors. Every incentive they see encourages them to pump-and-dump: pump up demand for law students and dump debt-ridden graduates on a glutted market. Their unemployed graduates become someone else’s problem.

It turns out that the someone else is not just the victimized students themselves. Eventually, the profession itself suffers. Staggering student debt will haunt some graduates forever because bankruptcy won’t discharge it. Income-based repayment programs will help some of them, but as Professor William Henderson observes, taxpayers could wind up paying large portions of those participants’ ultimate obligations when the federal government picks up the tab for residual unpaid debt.

Will anything make these deans stop? The villains are giving all other deans a bad rap. They know who they are. Now, James Leipold does, too. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to learn their names. Where all else has failed to alter unfortunate behavior, maybe public humiliation will help. Nothing else seems to be working.