WHEN SUPPORTING A CAUSE UNDERMINES IT

Lee Siegel and The New York Times probably thought they were aiding a vital cause when the Times published Siegel’s June 6 op-ed, “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans.” The underlying issue is important. Many of today’s young people bear the burden of huge educational debt in an economy that has not afforded the kinds of opportunities available to their baby-boomer parents, including Siegel.

Here’s the problem: Siegel did more harm than good. He made himself a poster child for the kind of moral hazard that first led policymakers to render student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy more than 40 years ago. It was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now. But Siegel is exactly the wrong spokesperson for the issue.

Lee Siegel’s Pitch

According to his op-ed, Siegel financed his education with student loans, the first of which he obtained 40 years ago. But when his family’s financial hardship left him unable to pay the full cost of tuition at “a private liberal arts college,” he “transferred to a state college in New Jersey, closer to home.” Eventually, he defaulted on his student loans.

“Years later,” he writes, “I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.”

He urges others to follow his example: default.

Who is Lee Siegel?

Here’s what Siegel and the Times didn’t reveal.

Notwithstanding his transfer to a New Jersey state college, he obtained three degrees from Columbia University — a B.A., an M.A., and a master’s of philosophy. According to the HarperCollins Speakers Bureau website, he’s “an acclaimed social and cultural critic.” The mere fact that he appears on that site means that you should expect to pay big bucks for the privilege of hearing him speak. He has written four books and his essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

In other words, he has an elite education that led to a lucrative career. He is exactly the wrong person to be the face of the student loan crisis — which is very real.

The Problem with Siegel’s Support

Siegel has now made himself a powerful anecdote for those on the wrong side of the fight for reform in financing higher education. Forty years ago, similar ammunition — anecdotes about individuals exploiting moral hazard — led to bad policy when student debt first became non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.

In the early years of the student loan program, the Department of Health, Education & Welfare brought a supposed “loophole” to the attention of the 1973 Congressional Commission on Bankruptcy Laws. Concerned about tarnishing the image of the new program, the Department didn’t want new college graduates embarking on lucrative careers to default on loans that had made their education possible

But there was no hard, numerical evidence suggesting a serious problem. Rather, media hype over a few news reports of “deadbeat” student debtors took on a life of their own. In 1976, Congress yielded to public hysteria and made student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy unless a borrower had been in default for at least five years or could prove “undue hardship.”

In 1990, it extended the default period to seven years. In 1997, the Bankruptcy Reform Commission still had found no evidence supporting claims of systemic abuse, but Congress decided nevertheless that only “undue hardship” would make educational debt dischargeable. That placed it in the same category as child support, alimony, court restitution orders, criminal fines, and certain taxes. In 2005, it extended non-dischargeability to private loans as well.

The Enduring Power of a Big Lie

Unfortunately, the anecdotes and unsubstantiated lore about supposed abuses that led to the current rule persist to this day. In a lead editorial on July 25, 2012, The Wall Street Journal perpetuated the falsehood that “[a]fter a surge in former students declaring bankruptcy to avoid repaying their loans, Congress acted to protect lenders beginning in 1977.” 

There was no such surge. It was “more myth and media hype” than reality. Now, Siegel has provided fuel for a new round of obfuscation to displace facts.

“Thirty years after getting my last [student loan],” Siegel writes, “the Department of Education is still pursuing the unpaid balance.” I hope they catch him.

NOTE: The special ebook sale of my first book, Crossing Hoffa – A Teamster’s Story continues: http://discussions.mnhs.org/10000books/true-crime-e-book-sale/. It’s the true crime saga of my father’s two-year tangle with Jimmy Hoffa from 1959 to 1961.

The Chicago Tribune honored it as one of the “Best Books of the Year.” You can get it at Amazon, bn.com, Google, iTunes, and Kobo.

ON THE COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL BLUE SKY BLOG…

The Columbia Law School Blue Sky Blog is now running my article, “Law School Moral Hazard and Flawed Public Policy”

Here’s the link: http://clsbluesky.law.columbia.edu/2015/05/28/law-school-moral-hazard-and-flawed-public-policy/

LAW SCHOOL MORAL HAZARD

My article in the Winter 2015 issue of the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, “Bankruptcy and Bad Behavior — The Real Moral Hazard: Law Schools Exploiting Market Dysfunction,” is now available on the Social Science Research Network. (Free download)

Here’s a teaser.

Loose talk about “the market for law school graduates” and related optimism about future employment prospects for entering students lack analytical rigor. That’s because the job market for new law school graduates is not a single market at all. Rather, graduate employment opportunities vary tremendously across distinct law school submarkets. But tuition and resulting law student debt often bear little relationship to graduates’ employment outcomes.

Current federal policies, including unlimited educational loans that are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, ignore these differences in law school submarkets and confound the operation of a true market. Those policies allow many law schools to exploit the resulting moral hazard, namely, the absence of accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

I propose a solution that will make many law school deans, admissions officers, and faculty squirm — as they should.

A NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN MISFIRES

My unwelcome diagnosis and resulting detour into our dysfunctional medical system diverted my attention from scrutinizing commentators who make dubious assertions about the current state of the legal profession.

Well, I’m back for this one. At first, I thought that Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon’s article in the April 1 edition of the New York Times, “Despite Forecasts of Doom, Signs of Life in the Legal Industry,” was an April Fool’s joke. But the expected punch line at the end of his essay never appeared.

To keep this post a manageable length, here’s a list of points that Solomon got wrong in his enthusiastic account of why the legal industry is on the rise. As a professor of law at Berkeley, he should know better.

  1. “The top global law firms ranked in the annual AmLaw 100 survey experienced a 4.3 percent increase in revenue in 2013 and a 5.4 percent increase in profit.”

That’s true. But it doesn’t support his argument that new law graduates will face a rosy job market. Increased revenue and profits do not translate into increased hiring of new associates. In most big firms, profit increases are the result of headcount reductions at the equity partner level – which have been accelerating for years.

  1. “Bigger firms are hiring.”

Sure, but nowhere near the numbers prior to Great Recession levels. More importantly, big firms comprise only about 15 percent of the profession and hire almost exclusively from the very top law schools. Meanwhile, overall employment in the legal services sector is still tens of thousands of jobs below its 2007 high. Even as recently December 2014, the number of legal services jobs had fallen from the end of 2013.

  1. “Above the Law, a website for lawyers, recently reported a rising trend for lateral moves for lawyers in New York.”

Apples and oranges. The lateral partner hiring market — another big law firm phenomenon that has nothing to do with most lawyers — is completely irrelevant to job prospects for new entry-level law school graduates. Even during the depths of the Great Recession, the former was hot. The latter continues to languish.

  1. “Last year, 93.2 percent of the 645 students of the Georgetown Law class of 2013 were employed.”

That number includes: 83 law school-funded positions, 12 part-time and/or short-term jobs, and 51 jobs not requiring a JD. Georgetown’s full-time, long-term, non-law school-funded JD-required employment rate for 2013 graduates was 72.4 percent – and Georgetown is a top law school. The overall average for all law schools was 56 percent.

  1. “[Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre found that a JD degree] results in a premium of $1 million for lawyers over their lifetime compared with those who did not go to law school.”

Simkovic acknowledges that their calculated median after-tax, after-tuition lifetime JD premium is $330,000. More fundamentally, the flaws in this study are well known to anyone who has followed that debate over the past two years. See, e.g., Matt Leichter’s two-part post beginning at https://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/economic-value-paper-a-mistrial-at-best/, or the summary of my reservations about the study here: http://thelawyerbubble.com/2013/09/03/once-more-on-the-million-dollar-jd-degree/. Most significantly, it ignores the fact that the market for law school graduates is really two markets — not unitary. Graduates from top schools have far better prospects than others. But the study admittedly takes no account of such differences.

  1. “[The American Bar Foundation’s After the JD] study found that as of 2012, lawyers had high levels of job satisfaction and employment as well as high salaries.”

It also found that by 2012, 24 percent of the 3,000 graduates still responding to the study questionnaire are no longer practicing law. The study’s single class of 2013 originally included more than 5,000 — so no one knows what the non-respondents are doing.

“These are the golden age graduates,” said American Bar Foundation faculty fellow Ronit Dinovitzer [one of the study’s authors], “and even among the golden age graduates, 24 percent are not practicing law.”

7.  “Law schools have tremendous survival tendencies. I have a bet with Jordan Weissmann at Slate that not a single law school will close.”

Yes. Those “survival tendencies” are called unlimited federal student loans for which law schools have no accountability with respect to their students employment outcomes. If Solomon wins that bet, it will be because a dysfunctional market keeps alive schools that should have closed long ago.

Whatever happened to the News York Times fact-checker?

2015: THE YEAR THAT THE LAW SCHOOL CRISIS ENDED (OR NOT) — PART II

Part I of this series addressed the ABA rule change that will allow 2014 law graduates until March 15 — an extra month from prior years — to find jobs before their schools have to report those graduates’ employment results to the ABA (and U.S. News). That change will almost certainly produce higher overall employment rates. But relying on any alleged trend that results solely from an underlying change in the rules of the game — such as extending the reporting period from nine months to ten — would be a mistake.

This post considers a second rule change. It comes from the U.S. Department of Labor, and it’s a whopper.

The Government Makes Things Worse

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently adopted a new statistical methodology for projecting the nation’s legal employment needs. Just about everyone agrees that, by any measure and for many years, the economy has been producing far more new lawyers than JD-required jobs. But the new BLS methodology declares that any oversupply of attorneys has evaporated. In fact, applying the new methodology retroactively to previous years would lead to the conclusion that the obvious glut of new lawyers never existed at all!

Using its earlier methodology, the Bureau has been revising downward its predictions of new lawyer jobs. In 2008, it projected a net additional 98,500 legal jobs through 2018. In 2012, it dropped that number to 73,600 through 2022. Taking into account retirements, deaths, and other attrition, the BLS separately projected that the profession could absorb about 20,000 new graduates annually for the next ten years. Most knowledgeable observers of the changing market for new lawyers have concurred with that ballpark assessment. Unfortunately, schools have been producing about twice that number (40,000).

Remarkably, the BLS’s new approach more than doubles the number of anticipated new legal jobs over the next 10 years. Rather than annual absorption of about 20,000 new lawyers through 2022, the Bureau now projects room for more than 41,000 a year. Overnight, demand caught up with what had been a chronic oversupply of attorneys.

In Defiance Of Sound Statistical Analysis And Common Sense

There are numerous technical and analytical flaws in the BLS’s new methodology. (See, e.g., Matt Leichter’s recent post, “2016 Grads Shouldn’t Take Comfort in New Jobs Projection Approach.”) Beyond those are common sense tests that the new methodology fails. For example, since 2011 the ABA-required data have revealed a persistent FTLT JD-required employment rate of 55 percent for new graduates. That’s not far from the projections that the BLS’s old methodology produced for a long time.

The BLS’s new approach amounts to saying that, somehow, all of those unemployed graduates must have been finding law jobs after all. As the old joke goes, endless digging in a roomful of manure was worth the effort; there was indeed a pony to be found – with the help of a little regression analysis.

Another common sense test considers actual employment numbers. For example, legal sector employment (including non-lawyers) through December 2014 was 1.133 million — about the same as a year ago and down more than 40,000 from 2006. Although the economy generally has recovered from the Great Recession, total employment in the legal sector is still far below pre-recession levels. If the BLS’s proposed approach were valid, it would suggest a remarkable attrition rate, raise serious questions about the state of the profession, and cause many prelaw students to wonder whether law school was the right choice.

The Bad Beat Goes On

Meanwhile, weak law schools that will benefit most from the ABA and BLS changes remain unaccountable for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes as they lower admission standards to fill classrooms. Median law school debt at graduation currently exceeds $120,000, and some of the schools with the worst employment outcomes burden students with the highest levels of debt. But there’s no financial risk to those schools because the federal government backs the loans and they’re not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

The escape hatch is small. If income-based repayment programs survive austerity demands of the Republican-controlled Congress – a big if – then students who persevere through 20 years of IBR will get a large tax bill because forgiven debt will count as income to them in the year it’s forgiven. The shortfall between the amount IBR students actually pay and the amount they owe will come from the federal purse.

Voila! The Crisis Is Over

Sometime in 2015, the synergy between the new ABA-rules allowing law schools to report 10-month employment data (discussed in Part I of this series) and the new BLS methodology projecting 41,000 new lawyer jobs annually will produce a law school chorus declaring that the crisis in legal education is over, at least in a macroeconomic sense. Indeed, the hype has already begun. Discussing the new BLS approach, Loyola University – Los Angeles School of Law professor Ted Seto observed: “If the new BLS projections are accurate, we should see demand and supply in relative equilibrium in 2015 and a significant excess of demand over supply beginning in 2016.”

The operative word is “if.” As noted in Part I, Seto’s similarly conditional prediction in 2013 didn’t come to pass. Meanwhile, only about half of his school’s 2013 graduating class secured full-time long-term JD-required employment within nine months of receiving their degrees. Average law school debt for the 82 percent of Loyola-LA law graduates who incurred debt was $141,765 — placing it 22nd (of 183) among schools whose students graduate with the most law school debt.

Here’s the real kicker. The vast disparity in individual law school employment outcomes makes broad macroeconomic declarations about opportunities for law graduates disingenuous anyway. It’s no surprise that the loudest voices come from schools where many graduates have great difficulty find any JD-required job.

But even at the macro level, anyone concerned about the fate of marginal law students, exploding student debt, or the future of a noble profession should look beyond any distracting noise about the supposed end of the legal education crisis. At least for now, the real question should be whether anything has really changed — other than the rules of the game.

2015: THE YEAR THAT THE LAW SCHOOL CRISIS ENDED (OR NOT) — PART I

Remember that you read it here first: In 2015, many law school deans and professors will declare that the law school crisis is over. After five years of handwringing, relatively minor curriculum changes at most schools, and no improvement whatsoever in the mechanism for funding legal education, the storm has passed. All is well. What a relief.

The building blocks for this house of cards start with first-year law school enrollment that is now below 38,000 – a level not seen since the mid-1970s when there were 53 fewer law schools. The recent drop in the absolute number of future attorneys seems impressive, but without the context of the demand for lawyers, it’s meaningless in assessing proximity to market equilibrium, which remains far away.

The Search for Demand

To boost the projected demand side of the equation, the rhetoric of illusory equilibrium often turns to the “degrees-awarded-per-capita” argument that Professor Ted Seto of Loyola Law School – Los Angeles floated in June 2013. His premise: “Demand for legal services…probably increases as population increases.”

“Unless something truly extraordinary has happened to non-cyclical demand,” Seto continued, “a degrees-awarded-per-capita analysis suggests that beginning in fall 2015 and intensifying into 2016 employers are likely to experience an undersupply of law grads, provided that the economic recovery continues.”

If only wishing could make it so. The economic recovery did, indeed, continue, but the hoped for increase in attorney demand was nowhere to be found. When Seto posted his analysis, total legal services employment (including non-lawyers) at the end of May 2013 was 1,133,800. At the end of November 2014, it was 1,133,700.

Follow That Dream

Professor Rene Reich-Graefe of Western New England University School of Law relied on a similar per capita approach (among other dubious arguments) to assert that today’s students are about to enter “the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country.” His students sure hope he’s right. Only 49 out of 133 members of the Western New England Law class of 2013 — 37 percent — obtained full-time long-term JD-required jobs within nine months of graduation.

It’s easy to hypothesize that population growth should increase the demand for everything, including attorneys. But it’s more precise to say that population growth is relevant to the demand for attorneys only insofar as such growth occurs among those who can actually afford a lawyer. (The degrees-per-capita argument also ignores the profound ways that technological change has reduced the demand for lawyers across many segments of the profession.)

The ABA and the U. S. Department of Labor’s Bureau Labor Statistics have added two new factors that will feed false optimism in 2015. This post considers the ABA’s unfortunate action. Part II will cover the BLS’s contribution to continuing confusion.

The ABA Misfires Again

Since it began requiring law schools to report detailed employment outcomes for their most recent graduates, the overall full-time long-term JD-required employment rate has hovered around 55 percent (excluding law school-funded jobs). For a long time, the cutoff date for schools to report their most recent graduates’ employment status to the ABA (and U.S. News) has been February 15 following the year of graduation.

Starting with the class of 2014, law schools will get an additional month during which their graduates can try to find jobs before schools have to report class-wide employment results. When the employment status cutoff date moves from February 15 to March 15, the reported FTLT JD-required employment rate will go up. Comparisons with prior year outcomes (nine months after graduation) will be disingenuous, but law deans and professors touting an upswing in the legal job market will make them. Market equilibrium, they will proclaim, has made its way to legal education.

The stated reason for the ABA change was that the February 15 cutoff had an unfair impact on schools whose graduates took the bar exam in states reporting results late in the fall, especially New York and California. Schools in those states, the argument went, suffered lower employment rates solely because their graduates couldn’t secure jobs until they had passed the bar. Another month would help their job numbers.

In July 2013, Professor Deborah Merritt offered powerful objections to the ABA’s proposed change: The evidence does not support the principal reason for the change; moving the cutoff date would impair the ability to make yearly comparisons at a time when the profession is undergoing dramatic transformation; prospective students would not have the most recent employment information as they decide where to send their tuition deposits in April; the change would further diminish public trust in law schools and the ABA. The new March 15 cutoff passed by a 10-to-9 vote.

Watch For Obfuscation

In a few months when the new 10-month employment figures for the class of 2014 show “improvement” over the prior year’s nine-month results, think apples-to-oranges as you contemplate whose interests the ABA is really serving. Consider, too, whether any macroeconomic projections of attorney demand are even probative when there is a huge variation in employment opportunities across law schools.

At 33 law schools (including Western New England School of Law), fewer than 40 percent of 2013 graduates found full-time long-term employment requiring a JD. At most of those schools, the vast majority of students incurred staggering six-figure debt for their degrees. (At Western New England, it was $120,677 for the class of 2013.)

In the some corners of the profession, federal student loan dollars are subsidizing an ugly business.

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.