LAW & FOOTBALL: RANKINGS DOUBLETHINK

For many people, the holiday season means an intense focus on college football. This year, a 12-person committee develops weekly team rankings. They will culminate in playoffs that produce head-to-head competition for the national championship in January.

A recent comment from the chairman of that committee, Jeff Long, is reminiscent of something U.S. News rankings czar Robert Morse said about his ranking system last year. Both remarks reveal how those responsible for rankings methodology rationalize distance between themselves and the behavior they incentivize.

Nobody Wants Credit?

Explaining why undefeated Florida State dropped from second to third in the November 11 rankings, Long told ESPN that making distinctions among the top teams was difficult. He explained that the relevant factors include a team’s “body of work, their strength of schedule.” Teams that defeat other strong teams get a higher rank than those beating weaker opponents. So even though Oregon has suffered a loss this year, its three victories against top-25 opponents jumped it ahead of undefeated FSU, which had only two such wins. Long repeated his explanation on November 19: “Strength of schedule is an important factor….”

Whether Oregon should be ahead of FSU isn’t the point. Long’s response to a follow-up question on November 11 is the eye-catcher: Was the committee sending a message to teams that they should schedule games against tougher opponents?

“We don’t think it’s our job to send messages,” he said. “We believe the rankings will do that.”

But who develops the criteria underlying the rankings? Long’s committee. The logic circle is complete.

Agency Moment Lost: Students

In his November 14 column for the New York Times, David Brooks writes more broadly about “The Agency Moment.” It occurs when an individual accepts complete responsibility for his or her decisions. Some people never experience it.

Rankings can provide opportunities for agency moments. For example, some prelaw students avoid serious inquiry into an important question: which law school might be the best fit for their individual circumstances? Instead, I’ve heard undergraduates say they’ll attend the best law school that accepts them, and U.S. News rankings will make that determination.

If they were talking about choosing from law schools in different groups, that would make some sense. There’s a reason that Harvard doesn’t lose students to Boston University. But too many students take the rankings too far. If the choice is between school number 22 and the one ranked number 23, they’re picking number 22, period. That’s idiotic.

In abandoning independent judgment, such students (and their parents) cede one of life’s most important decisions to Robert Morse, the non-lawyer master of the rankings methodology. It’s also an agency moment lost.

Agency Moment Lost: Deans, Administrators, and Alumni

Likewise, deans who let U.S. News dictate their management decisions say they’re just responding to incentives. As long as university administrators, alumni, and prospective students view the rankings as meaningful, they have to act accordingly. Any complaint — and there are many — should go to the person who develops the rankings methodology.

All roads of responsibility lead back to U.S. News’ Robert Morse, they say. But following that trail leads to another lost agency moment. In March 2013, Lee Pacchia of Bloomberg asked Morse if he took any responsibility for what’s ailing legal education today:

“No…U.S. News isn’t the ABA. U.S. News doesn’t regulate the reporting requirements. No….”

Agency Moment Lost: Methodology Masters

Morse went on to say that U.S. News was not responsible for the cost of law school, either. Pacchia didn’t ask him why the methodology rewards a school that increases expenditures without regard to the beneficial impact on student experiences or employment outcomes. Or how schools game the system by aggressively recruiting transfer students whose tuition adds revenue at minimal cost and whose lower LSAT scores don’t count in the school’s ranking methodology. (Vivia Chen recently reported on the dramatic increase in incoming transfer students at some schools.)

Cassius was only half-right. The fault lies not in our stars; but it doesn’t lie anywhere else, either!

The many ways that U.S. News rankings methodology has distorted law school deans’ decision-making is the subject of Part I of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis. Part II investigates the analogous behavior of law firm leaders who rely on metrics that maximize short-term Am Law rankings in running their businesses (e.g., billings, billable hours, hourly rates, and leverage ratios).

Aggregate Rankings v. Individual Outcomes

In the end, “sending a message” through a rankings methodology is only one part of an agency equation. The message itself doesn’t require the recipient to engage in any particular behavior. That’s still a choice, although incentive structures can limit perceived options and create first-mover dilemmas.

Importantly, individual outcomes don’t always conform to rankings-based predictions. Successful participants still have to play — and win — each game. That doesn’t always happen. Just ask Mississippi State — ranked number one in the college football playoff sweepstakes after week 12, but then losing to Alabama on November 15. Or even better, look at number 18 ranked Notre Dame, losing on the same day to unranked Northwestern.

Maybe that’s the real lesson for college coaches, prelaw students, law school deans, and law firm leaders. Rather than rely on rankings and pander to the methodology behind them, focus on winning the game.

BULLET DODGED? OR REDIRECTED TOWARD YOU?

For the past six months, Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego seemed poised to become the first ABA-accredited law school to fail since the Great Recession began. For anyone paying attention to employment trends in the legal sector, the passage of six years without a law school closing somewhere is itself remarkable. It also says much about market dysfunction in legal education.

In his November 5 column in the New York TimesUniversity of California-Berkeley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon has a different view. Solomon argues that recent enrollment declines prove that a functioning market has corrected itself: “[T]he bottom is almost here for law schools. This is how economics works: Markets tend to overshoot on the way up, and down.”

Solomon urges that the proper course is to keep marginal law schools such as Thomas Jefferson alive for a while “and see what happens.” I disagree.

Take Thomas Jefferson, Please

As I’ve discussed previously, in 2008 the school issued bonds for a new building. When the specter of default loomed large in early 2014, the question was whether some accommodation with bondholders would keep the school alive. Solomon suggests that creditors made the only deal possible and the school is the ultimate winner. He gives little attention to the real losers in this latest example of a legal education market that is not working: Thomas Jefferson’s students, the legal profession, and taxpayers.

In retrospect, the restructuring agreement between the school and its bondholders reveals that a deal was always likely. That’s because both sides could use other people’s money to make it, as they have since 2008.

According to published reports, interest on the taxable portion of the 2008 bond issuance was 11 percent. Tax-exempt bondholders earned more than 7 percent interest. Thanks to federally-backed student tuition loans, taxpayers then subsidized the school’s revenue streams that provided quarterly interest and principal payments to those bondholders.

Outcomes? Irrelevant In This Market

Last year, Thomas Jefferson accepted 80 percent of applicants. According to its latest required ABA disclosures, first-year attrition was over 30 percent. The school’s California bar passage rate for first-time takers in February and July 2012 was 54 percent, compared to the state average of 71 percent.

Solomon cites the school’s other dismal statistics, but ignores their implications. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s low bar passage rate made no difference to most of its graduates because the full-time long-term bar passage-employment rate for the class of 2013 was 29 percent, as it was for the class of 2012.

Meanwhile, its perennially high tuition (currently $44,900 a year) put Thomas Jefferson #1 on the U.S. News list of schools whose students incurred the greatest law school indebtedness: $180,665 for the class of 2013. According to National Jurist, the school generates 95 percent of its income from tuition.

It’s Alive

This invites an obvious question: How did the school survive so long and what is prolonging its life?

First, owing to unemployed recent graduates with massive student loans, bondholders received handsome quarterly payments for more than five years — much of it tax-exempt interest. The disconnect between student outcomes and the easy availability for federal loans blocked a true market response to a deteriorating situation. Bondholders should also give an appreciative nod to federal taxpayers who are guaranteeing those loans and will foot the bill for graduates entering income-based loan forgiveness programs.

Second, headlines touted Thomas Jefferson’s new deal as “slashing debt” by $87 million, but bondholders now own the law school building and will reportedly receive a market rate rent from the school — $5 million a year. Future student loans unrelated to student outcomes will provide those funds.

Third, the school issued $40 million in new bonds that will pay the current bondholders two percent interest. Student loan debt will make those payments possible.

Net-net, win-win, lose-lose

The bottom line benefit for Thomas Jefferson is immediate relief from its current cash crunch. Instead of $12 million in principal and interest payments annually, the school will pay $6 million in rent and bond interest — funded by students who borrow to obtain a Thomas Jefferson law degree of dubious value.

“I think the whole deal is a reflection of the fact that the bondholders were very desirous for us to succeed,” [Thomas Jefferson Dean Thomas] Guernsey said.

Actually, it reflects the bondholders’ ability to tap into the proceeds of future federal student loans as they cut a deal with a wounded adversary. Instead of cash flow corresponding to bond interest rates of 7 and 11 percent, bondholders will receive about half that amount, along with an office building and the tax advantages that come with ownership (e.g., depreciation deductions). Think of it as refinancing your home mortgage, except the bank gets to keep your house.

Erroneous Assumptions Produce Dubious Strategies

“This restructuring is a major step toward achieving our goals,” said Thomas Guernsey, dean of Thomas Jefferson. “It puts the school on a solid financial footing.”

Throwing furniture into the fireplace to keep the house warm is not a viable long-run survival strategy. Consider future students and their willingness to borrow as the “furniture” and you have a picture of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s business plan.

Meanwhile, Solomon echoes the hopes of law school faculty and administrators everywhere when he says, “[T]he decline in enrollment could lead to a shortage of lawyers five years from now.”

In assuming a unitary market demand for lawyers, he conflates the separate and distinct submarkets for law school graduates. His resulting leap of faith is that a rising tide — even if it arrives — will lift Thomas Jefferson’s boat and the debt-ridden graduates adrift in it. It won’t.

ELON’S “GROUNDBREAKING NEW MODEL”

On October 9, the Elon University School of Law issued a press release announcing its “groundbreaking new model” of legal education. That’s an overstatement, but the plan has some distinctly positive elements. Unfortunately, it also continues to rely on the prevailing law school business model that has produced the profession’s current crisis.

Elon’s Brief History

Located in Greensboro, North Carolina, Elon was founded in 2006 and received ABA accreditation in 2008 — as the Great Recession began. In one sense, the timing was good because many undergraduates thought law school was a safe place to spend three years waiting for the economy to improve. At the time, that option looked especially attractive because the ABA didn’t require schools to disclose whether recent graduates were obtaining meaningful JD-required jobs. By 2010, Elon achieved a record-high first-year enrollment of 132 students. Tuition for 2009-2010 was $30,750/year.

As ABA-mandated disclosures began to reveal that almost half of all law graduates nationwide were not getting full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD, the overall number of applicants to all law schools plummeted — from 87,500 in 2010 to 59,400 in 2013. Some deans at less competitive schools lowered admissions standards and raised acceptance rates. Even in a collapsing market for new lawyers, the effort to fill classrooms was a rational response to financial incentives. Federally-backed non-dischargeable student loans for tuition generated revenues for law schools, but schools had no accountability for their graduates’ poor job prospects.

Lowering the Bar

According to U.S. News, Elon accepted 68.4 percent of applicants for fall 2013 and enrolled 107 first-year students — almost 20 percent fewer than in 2010. From 2010 to 2013, the median LSAT for its first-year class dropped from 155 to 150; the median GPA declined from 3.12 to 3.01. At the 25th percentile, from 2010 to 2013, Elon’s LSAT/GPA combination went from 153/2.80 to 146/2.75.

Even as first-year enrollment declined at Elon, tuition increased to almost $38,000/year. Average student debt for 2013 graduates exceeded $108,000. Meanwhile, Elon’s full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for 2013 graduates was 32.8 percent. The school was one of only 13 (out of 201) ABA-accredited schools that placed less than one-third of their graduates in such jobs.

Groundbreaking?

When the school’s new dean, Luke Bierman, joined Elon on June 1 of this year, the school was already more than two years into developing a strategic plan that now includes added experiential learning, residencies with practicing attorneys, faculty-supervised development, and a JD program of seven trimesters replacing three academic years.

Practical training, residencies, and student development efforts that give otherwise unemployed lawyers a few tools to help them scratch out a living with their JDs is a good thing. Everyone should applaud those initiatives. But especially with Duke, UNC, and Wake Forest nearby, such changes are not likely to create more JD-required jobs for Elon graduates.

Pushing students out the door more quickly is not particularly novel. Many schools, including the University of Dayton, Drexel, Pepperdine, Northwestern, Southwestern, and others, have two-year programs. But the really big reform — eliminating the third year altogether — isn’t happening because accreditation rules prevent it. Existing accelerated programs merely cram the requisite workload into a shorter time period.

Money-saving?

Elon claims that its new plan offers two economic benefits to students: they can enter the job market sooner and save money on tuition. Whether becoming eligible for JD-required employment is a benefit for Elon graduates in the current environment (or even a few years from now) isn’t clear. As for the tuition discount, it’s true that an Elon JD will now cost $100,000 for seven trimesters compared to the $114,000 for three years (at $38,000/year) — a nominal student savings of $14,000.

But Elon’s strategic plan probably includes a pro forma projection showing that its new pricing policy benefits the school at least as much. Take the total current cost of $114,000, divide it by nine trimesters (three years), and the result is a per-trimester cost of $12,666.67. If students were paying for seven trimesters at Elon’s current annual tuition rate, the total cost for the degree would be $88,666.67. They’ll now pay $100,000 (or $14,285.71 per trimester). Elon promises to freeze a student’s total cost for the program, but on a price-per-trimester basis the $100,000 fixed cost already includes a tuition increase.

The Real Problem

The short-term economic impact of Elon’s new program is less troubling than the school’s long-term business plan. Because the seven-trimester program will generate less gross revenue per student than its current three-year course of study, the school plans to recover those losses by adding — you guessed it — more students.

The Triad Business Journal reports: “From a business standpoint, Elon Law anticipates offsetting the loss of revenue from tuition reduction by gradually increasing the number of students joining the school each year, up from 112 this fall to about 130 within a number of years.”

Imagine the consequences if every law school that currently places fewer than one-third of its graduates in full-time long-term JD-required jobs were to increase enrollment by 20 to 30 percent “within a number of years.” For the profession, that would be like accelerating in reverse gear toward a brick wall.

The Quest for Meaningful Reform

Elon’s understandable approach to the economics of this situation is important for one more reason. After accepting the deanship in January 2014, Bierman became a member of the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education. If that task force develops a “groundbreaking” plan to supplement a glutted market with more new lawyers from schools where two-thirds of current graduates can’t find full-time long-term JD-required employment, perhaps the ground would be better left unbroken.

More about possible solutions in my address at the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Symposium at St. John’s University on October 24.

STUDENT LOANS, MORAL HAZARD, AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS – CONCLUSION

My most recent post in this series discussed manifestations of law school moral hazard at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and Quinnipiac Law School. Both institutions have spent millions of dollars on flashy new buildings where attentive students will have a tough time getting jobs requiring the expensive JDs they are pursuing.

The series now concludes with two more schools that illustrate another dimension of the dysfunctional law school market. Recent graduates of Golden Gate University School of Law and Florida Coastal School of Law live in the worst of two worlds: Their schools have unusually low full-time long-term JD-required employment rates and unusually high average law student debt.

Muddy Disclosure

The recent decline in the number of law school applicants has resulted in many schools struggling to fill their classrooms. When a school depends on the continuing flow of student loan-funded revenues, the pressure to bring in bodies can be formidable. One consequence is especially unseemly for a noble profession: dubious marketing tactics.

By now, most people are aware of ABA rule changes that require each school to disclose in some detail its recent graduates’ employment results, specifically, whether jobs are full-time, part-time, short-term, long-term, or JD-required. But those requirements don’t prevent Golden Gate University School of Law’s “Employment Statistics Snapshot” page from touting this aggregate statistic for its 2013 graduates “85.4 percent were employed in jobs that required bar passage…or where a JD provided an advantage.”

The school’s “ABA employment summary” link appears on the same page. But Golden Gate has supposedly made things easier for prospective students by showing its 2013 graduates’ employment results in a large pie chart. According to that chart, nine months after graduation, 38.2 percent of the school’s 2013 graduates had JD-required jobs.

Here’s what the chart doesn’t reveal: Even that unimpressive total (38.2 percent) includes part-time and short-term positions. Golden Gate’s full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for 2013 graduates was 23 percent.

Money to be Made

I’ve written previously about Florida Coastal, one of the InfiLaw system of private, for-profit law schools. Florida Coastal’s website includes all employment outcomes — legal, non-legal, full-time, part-time, long-term, short-term, and a large number of law school-funded jobs — to arrive at its “job placement rate” of 74.3 percent for its 2012 graduates. That number appears on the program overview pages of the school’s website. But you have to dig deeper — and move into the “Professional Development” section — to learn the more recent and relevant data: The overall employment rate dropped to 62 percent for the class of 2013.

However, those overall rates aren’t even the numbers that matter. Anyone persevering to the school’s ABA-mandated employment disclosure summary finds that the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for Florida Coastal’s 2013 graduates was 31 percent.

The Cost of Market Dysfunction

At Golden Gate, tuition and fees have increased from $26,000 in 2006 to more than $43,000 today. During the same period, Florida Coastal increased its tuition and fees from $23,000 to more than $40,000. That’s why Florida Coastal and Golden Gate rank so high in average law school loan debt for 2013 graduates, with $150,360 and $144,269, respectively.

To its credit, Florida Coastal eliminates any doubt about the trajectory of law school debt for its future students. The median debt for its 2014 graduates rose to more than $175,000 — all of it consisting of federal student loans.

Searching for Solutions

My criticisms of current market failures should not be construed as an argument for eliminating the government-backed student loan program for law students. Were it not for federal educational loans, I could not have attended college, much less law school. The program was a good idea when Milton Friedman promoted it in the early 1950s, and it is still a good idea today.

But the core of this good idea has gone bad in its implementation. Shining a light on resulting market dysfunction should generate constructive approaches to a remedy. At the October 24 American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Symposium at St. John’s University (and my related law review article appearing thereafter), I’ll outline my ideas.

Here’s a preview: Viewing the law school market in the aggregate — as a single market — obfuscates a reasoned analysis of the problem. It protects the weakest law schools from the consequences of their failures. They should pay an immediate price for exploiting the moral hazard resulting from the current system of financing legal education. At a minimum, the government should not be subsidizing their bad behavior.

The profession would be wise to lead itself out of this mess. The financial incentives of the current structure, along with its pervasive vested interests, make that a daunting task. Even so, human decisions created the problem. Better human decisions can fix them.

STUDENT LOANS, MORAL HAZARD, AND A LAW SCHOOL MESS: PART 2

Sometimes law school moral hazard assumes a concrete form — literally.

A School Making Unwanted News

For example, Thomas Jefferson School of Law is now coping with a widely publicized credit downgrade of its bonds to junk status and related concerns about its future. But those financial difficulties date back to late 2008. The deepening recession was decimating the employment market for lawyers generally and hitting Thomas Jefferson graduates especially hard.

That didn’t stop the school from breaking ground in October 2008 on a new building that opened in January 2011. California tax-exempt bonds financed the $90 million project. Government-backed student borrowing for ever-increasing tuition — currently almost $45,000 a year — would provide a revenue stream from which to pay bondholders.

In 2012, new ABA-required disclosures allowed the world to see the school’s dismal employment record for graduates seeking full-time, long-term jobs requiring a JD (63 out of 236, or 27 percent, for the class of 2011). As enrollment declined, so did revenue from student loans. Unfortunately, the building and the bonds issued to pay for it remain, as does the stunning debt that students incurred for their degrees.

Quinnipiac’s New Digs

Recently, Quinnipiac University School of Law celebrated the opening of a new $50 million building in North Haven, Connecticut. Its website boasts that the new facility “is 154,749 square feet and will include a 180-seat two-tiered courtroom with Judge’s Chambers and Jury Room.” The Law Center is one of three interconnected buildings on a graduate school campus that is “expansive and architecturally distinctive, with an array of shared amenities, a beautiful full-service dining commons, bookstore, ample parking, and convenient highway access.”

Quinnipiac’s students — including all 92 entrants to the fall 2014 one-L class — will have luxurious accommodations in which to contemplate their uncertain futures. According to the school’s ABA required disclosures, nine months after graduation only 51 of 148 students in the class of 2013 — 34 percent — had found full-time long-term employment requiring a JD. And a Quinnipiac law degree has become increasingly expensive as tuition and fees alone have risen from $30,280 in 2006 to more than $47,000 today.

Tough Numbers

Such dismal employment outcomes for Quinnipiac are not new. Only 41 percent of its 2012 graduates found full-time long-term employment that required a JD. The rate for the class of 2011 was 35%.

Both Thomas Jefferson and Quinnipiac are among many law schools that must yearn for the good ole’ days — three years ago — when deans didn’t have to disclose whether their most recent graduates held jobs that were short-term, part-time, or had no connection whatsoever to the legal training they had received. ABA-sanctioned opacity allowed law schools as a group to claim — without qualification — that the overall employment rate for current graduating classes exceeded 90 percent.

Back to the Future

At Quinnipiac, the culture of that bygone era apparently endures. The link to its ABA-required disclosures page takes prospective students to “Employment Outcomes” and this:

“82% of the graduating class was employed as of Feb. 15, 2014 in the categories listed below…Bar passage is required, JD is an advantage, other professional jobs, and non-professional jobs.”

But if prospective students want to know the whole truth, they have to click again, go to the school’s ABA questionnaire, and perform a calculation from the raw data that reveals the 34 percent employment rate for the most important job category — full-time, long-term, JD-required jobs.

Law School Marketing

Similarly, the “Career Development” section of Quinnipiac’s current prospective student “Viewbook” leads with the banner headline that its “Employment Rate” for the class of 2012 was a remarkable 84% — “127 of 151 graduates employed.” An asterisk adds this tiny note: “Comprehensive employment outcomes for the class of 2012, including all employment categories as defined by the ABA (full-time/part-time/short term/long term) can be found at emplyomentsummary.abaquestionnare.org.”

Can prospective law students discover the truth? Sure. Should they take the time to do so? You bet. Do all of them make the effort? Not a chance. If they did, the 80+ percent, big-font employment statistics wouldn’t be in Quinnipiac’s recruiting materials. For careful readers, those big numbers are a waste of space.

What, me worry?

Undeterred by its recent graduates’ employment track record, Quinnipiac wants to grow. “There’s a decline in the demand for lawyers,” university president John Lahey said. “Even with the decline, we’re the only school in the country to spend $50 million for a new law school.”

That peculiar boast reflects an “if you build it, they will come” mentality determined to maximize tuition revenues. Unfortunately, that attitude can lead to short-term mischief and long-run calamity. Just ask anyone associated with the Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

Market dysfunction

Law schools remain unaccountable for the poor employment outcomes of their graduates. As most schools raise tuition, many students incur increasing amounts of debt for a degree that won’t get them a JD-required job. Because the federal government backs the vast majority of those loans, you could say that the system is your tax dollar at work.

Quinnipiac didn’t raise tuition for 2014-2015, but 86 percent of its 2013 graduates incurred law school debt averaging $102,000. Down the road at New Haven, 80 percent of Yale’s 2013 graduates with far superior job prospects incurred debt averaging $112,000.

The More Things Change…

The perverse law school response to market forces is a predictable business strategy, especially for law schools whose graduates are having the greatest difficulty finding law jobs. In an interview with the New Haven Register, Quinnipiac University President Lahey said that he hopes enrollment will grow from the current total of 292 students to 500 — the design capacity for the school’s new building.

Now that they’ve built it, will students come? If they value a “beautiful full-service dining commons,” perhaps. If they consider footnotes, read the fine print, and assess realistically their JD-required employment prospects as they peruse recruiting materials touting a Quinnipiac law degree, perhaps not.

STUDENT LOANS, MORAL HAZARD, AND A LAW SCHOOL MESS

Throughout the summer, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been promoting legislation that would provide relief to students with educational debt. As the Senate concludes its work — and I use that word loosely — before the November elections, she is taking another run at the issue. Most recently, Senator Warren made her case in an article that appeared in the September 9, 2014 edition of the Huffington Post: “The Vote That Could Cut Your Student Loan Bills.”

Her point is simple: Students who took out educational loans prior to July 1, 2013 are locked into an interest rate of nearly 7 percent. “Older loans run 8-9% and even higher,” she writes. She’d like to bring that rate down by allowing graduates (and parents who co-signed their loans) to refinance them.

Politics, You Say?

Election year politics have rendered her proposal dead on arrival. That became clear in June when Senate Republicans filibustered the bill, even though three of them — Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine — were among the 56-38 majority that was insufficient to bring it to the floor.

But the gridlock in Washington and resulting inaction may focus attention on a more important underlying problem: How does a system anchored in noble intentions evolve to produce such enormous and unsustainable levels of educational debt in the first place? Some law schools have become poster children for the unfortunate answer to that question.

Blame Professor Friedman

In the 1960’s, Milton Friedman argued that America would benefit if individuals had a way to borrow against future incomes and invest in becoming more valuable workers. In those days, a college education was the surest path to the middle class. To a large extent, it still is.

From Friedman’s idea came the federal student loan program. But over time, Congress and several presidents added features that became problematic. Imagined and unfounded fears of moral hazard — specifically, that students on the cusp of lucrative careers would declare bankruptcy to avoid paying their student loans — resulted in the rule that educational debt survives bankruptcy, except in extreme circumstances that courts rarely find.

Coupled with federal guarantees, the loans eliminated lender risk. That created a new moral hazard: Educational institutions themselves were at least two steps away from any financial accountability for their graduates’ outcomes.

Law School Misbehavior

For law schools, all of this has assumed special significance. Unlike undergraduate colleges that can claim to be creating well-rounded and better informed citizens entering a variety of careers, law schools exist to train people who want to become lawyers. Some law graduates may take rewarding non-legal paths, but undergraduates aspiring to careers in business, for example, typically attend business school. At least, they should.

If the ability of a school’s graduates to use their legal training initially in a JD-required job is an appropriate way to measure a law school’s success, then many are unambiguous failures. For the class of 2013, 33 of 201 ABA-accredited schools placed fewer than 40 percent of their graduates in long-term full-time JD-required employment (excluding law school-funded jobs).

But here’s the kicker. Thanks to the moral hazard that the federally-backed loan program creates, some schools with the worst employment records for recent graduates have students with the highest levels of law school loan debt.

For the class of 2013, three of the top ten schools with the highest average student loan debt at graduation placed less than one-third of their graduates in full-time long-term JD-required jobs (again, excluding law school-funded positions). They were: Thomas Jefferson ($180,000 average student debt; 29 percent employment rate), Whittier ($154,000 average student debt; 27 percent employment rate), and Florida Coastal ($150,000 average student debt; 31 percent employment rate).

Defying the Market

How do these schools and others like them accomplish this economically perverse feat? Large doses of prospective student confirmation bias combine with federally-backed student loans to create a dysfunctional market.

Marginal law schools seek to fill their classrooms to maximize revenues. Next week, I’ll examine a few schools pursuing this goal through recruiting materials that seem to obfuscate ABA-required employment disclosures. For now, the important point is that what happens to those students after they graduate becomes someone else’s problem. Once students pay their tuition bills, law schools have no financial stake in their graduates’ employment outcomes.

Searching for Solutions

This takes us back to Senator Warren’s bill aimed at giving past students a break. In the current low-interest rate environment, it’s reasonable to provide former students with the kind of refinancing opportunities available to homeowners, business proprietors, and other debtors. But that won’t begin to solve the real problem. The current system of financing legal education creates moral hazard that has produced — and will continue to produce — law school misbehavior at great expense, not only to affected students, but also to all of us.

In the coming weeks prior to my October 24 presentation to the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Symposium at St. John’s University School of Law, I’ll offer some ideas for dealing with that larger problem. Some people won’t like them.

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.