UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Today’s “Unfortunate Comment Award” winner is ABA President William (“Bill”) Robinson III, who thinks he has found those responsible for the glut of unemployed, debt-ridden young lawyers: the lawyers themselves.

“It’s inconceivable to me that someone with a college education, or a graduate-level education, would not know before deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over the last several years and that the job market out there is not as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years ago,” he told Reuters during a January 4 interview.

Which year we talkin’ ’bout, Willis?

Recent graduates made the decision to attend law school in the mid-2000s, when the economy was booming. Even most students now in their third year decided to apply by spring 2008 — before the crash — when they registered for the LSAT. Some of those current 3-Ls were undergraduates in the first-ever offering of a course on the legal profession that I still teach at Northwestern. What were they thinking? I’ll tell you.

I’ve written that colleges and law schools still make little effort to bridge a pervasive expectations-reality gap. Anyone investigating law schools in early 2008 saw slick promotional materials that reinforced the pervasive media image of a glamorous legal career.

Jobs? No problem. Prospective students read that for all recent graduates of all law schools, the overall average employment rate was 93 percent. They had no reason to assume that schools self-reported misleading statistics to the ABA, NALP, and the all-powerful U.S. News ranking machine.

But unlike most of their law school-bound peers, my students scrutinized the flawed U.S. News approach. Among other things, they discovered that employment rates based on the ABA’s annual law school questionnaire were cruel jokes. That questionnaire allowed deans to report graduates as employed, even if they were flipping burgers or working for faculty members as temporary research assistants.

Law school websites followed that lead because the U.S. News rankings methodology penalized greater transparency and candor. In his Reuters interview, Robinson suggested that problematic employment statistics afflicted “no more than four” out of 200 accredited institutions, but he’s just plain wrong. Like their prospective students, most deans still obsess over U.S. News rankings as essential elements of their business models.

The beat goes on

With the ABA’s assistance, such law school deception continues today. Only last month — December 2011 — did the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar finally approve changes in collecting and publishing law graduate placement data: Full- or part-time jobs? Bar passage required? Law school-funded? Some might consider that information relevant to a prospective law student trying to make an informed decision. Until this year, the ABA didn’t. The U.S. News rankings guru, Robert Morse, deferred to the ABA.

The ABA is accelerating the new reporting process so that “the placement data for the class of 2011 will be published during the summer of 2012, not the summer of 2013.” That’s right, even now, a pre-law student looking at ABA-sanctioned employment information won’t find the whole ugly truth. (Notable exceptions include the University of Chicago and Yale.) Consequently, any law school still looks like a decent investment of time and money, but as Professor William Henderson and Rachel Zahorsky note in the January 2012 issue of the ABA Journal, it often isn’t.

Students haven’t been blind to the economy. But bragging about 90+ percent employment rates didn’t (and doesn’t) deter prospective lawyers. Quite the contrary. Law school has long been the last bastion of the liberal arts major who can’t decide what’s next. The promise of a near-certain job in tough times makes that default solution more appealing.

Even the relatively few undergraduates (including the undergraduates in my class) paying close attention to big firm layoffs in 2009 were hopeful. They thought that by the time they came out of law school, the economy and the market for attorneys would improve. So did many smart, informed people. Youthful optimism isn’t a sin.

Which takes me to ABA President Robinson’s most telling comment in the Reuters interview: “We’re not talking about kids who are making these decisions.”

Perhaps we’re not talking about his 20-something offspring, but they’re somebody’s kids. The ABA and most law school deans owed them a better shake than they’ve received.

It’s ironic and unfortunate: one of the most visible spokesmen in a noble profession blames the victims.

UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

The Case Against Law School” in last week’s NY Times opened with an article by former Northwestern Law School Dean David Van Zandt, whom I’ve never met. Regarded as a maverick in the legal academy, he’s now president of The New School. I don’t know how the Times selected its essayists, but Van Zandt earned my “Unfortunate Comment Award” with this:

“Law schools and their faculties have a vested interest in requiring students to spend more time on campus and more money at their schools.”

If he intended his revelation to be that of a whistle-blower, he blew the whistle on himself. Tackling vested interests that run contrary to what’s best for students should be a defining characteristic of leadership in higher education. But during his fifteen years as dean, he contributed uniquely to a problem he now decries — squeezing more money out of students.

Here’s how. Van Zandt was an outspoken advocate of running law schools as businesses and relying on misguided metrics to do it. One was the U.S. News rankings, which he publicly embraced and almost every other dean condemned. When it comes to money, the rankings methodology — so flawed in so many ways — rewards schools’ high expenditures (requiring high tuition) without regard to value.

Perhaps it’s coincidental, but consider the tuition trend during Van Zandt’s tenure: When he took over in 1995, three years’ tuition for a Northwestern law degree totaled $60,000. By 2008, it had more than doubled to third highest in the country. When he left in 2010, the degree cost $150,000 — just for tuition. Student law school debt has risen accordingly.

When used to run law schools, misguided metrics pose other perils to student welfare. For example, transfer students’ LSATs don’t count in the U.S. News calculus, but they’re lucrative additions to any law school’s bottom line. Under Van Zandt, Northwestern recruited transfers aggressively. But the resulting growth in graduating class size hasn’t served students who entered as 1Ls, especially in today’s job market.

Then there’s the accelerated JD — a flagship initiative of Van Zandt’s final long-range strategic plan that he still promotes from afar. The plan incorporated his view of law school as a business that placed special value on large firms. After all, they were key customers because of their metrics: Big law pays new graduates the highest starting salaries, thereby justifying ever-increasing tuition. This dubious short-term approach, along with his efforts to sell it, drew attention away from the school’s other vitally important strengths.

As for the students, acceleration buries first-years in additional courses to develop “core competencies” while reducing time for thoughtful reflection about their places in a diverse and challenging profession. Before implementing that plan, he should have read Scott Turow’s One L and reviewed big law’s associate attrition and career dissatisfaction rates.

Finally, students in the two-year accelerated program pay the same total tuition as the traditional three-year people because, according to the school’s website, “Northwestern Law prices tuition by the degree pursued rather than the length of enrollment.” That’s a choice, not an economic imperative.

Defending that choice in the Times, Van Zandt wrote, “The cost to the school [of the accelerated students] remains the same because the credit hours remain the same.” That’s a non-sequitur. Certainly, the accelerated group adds cost for its own first-year section — five required courses, plus negotiation and business school-type classes. But twenty-seven students  in the class of 2011 generated $4 million incremental tuition dollars during their two years. As Van Zandt elsewhere explained, after their first year “they are integrated with the rest of the students.” If so, the school’s marginal cost of accelerated students’ second-year credit hours should be minimal. Including them with everyone else should bring its average cost per student down, too.

It turns out that running law schools as businesses that focus on misguided metrics is dangerous. During Van Zandt’s final years at Northwestern, its U.S. News ranking dropped from ninth to twelfth and its NLJ 250 placement rate for graduates joining big firms dropped from first to eighth.

Call it karma.

A NEW LAW SCHOOL MISSION

What ails the profession and is there a cure?

If you haven’t already seen it, you might want to take a look at Part I of my article, “Great Expectations Meet Painful Realities,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Circuit Rider. My latest contribution to the debate on the profession’s growing crisis begins on page 24 of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association’s semi-annual publication.

Part II begins at page 26 of the December 2011 issue.

MIRED IN METRICS? HAVE SOME MORE!

Once a bad situation spins out of control, is there any way to corral it? When all else fails, try making things worse.

The ABA recently released its report detailing just a few of the ways that U.S. News law school rankings have been counterproductive for prospective lawyers and the profession — from driving up the costs of legal education to driving down the importance of diversity.  (http://www.abanet.org/legaled/nosearch/Council2010/OpenSession2010/F.USNewsFinal%20Report.pdf)

As U.S.News now develops law firm rankings, the report concludes with an ominous warning:

“Once a single rankings system comes to dominate a particular field, it is very difficuly to displace, difficult to change and dangerous to underestimate the importance of its methodology to any school or firm that operates in the field. This, we believe, is the most important lesson from the law school experience for those law firms who may be ranked by U.S. News in the future.”

In other words, rankings sometimes function as any so-called definitive metric: They displace reasoned judgment. Independent thought becomes unnecessary because the methodology behind the metric dictates decision-makers’ actions.

Since 1985, many big firms have become living examples of the phenomenon. That year, The American Lawyer published its first-ever Am Law 50 list of the nation’s largest firms. Most firm leaders now teach to the Am Law test, annually seeking to maximize revenues and average profits per equity partner. The resulting culture of billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios begins to explain why surveys report that large firm lawyers lead the profession in career dissatisfaction.(http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/pulse_of_the_legal_profession/print/) Without a metric for it, attorney well-being – and the factors contributing to it — drop out of the equation.

Courtesy of U.S. News, large firms now stand on the threshhold of more metrics. Will they make working environments of firms that have succcumbed to the profits-per-partner criterion worse?

It depends, but more of yet another bad thing — rankings – could produce something good — forcing individuals to sift through contradictory data, think for themselves, and make a real decision. But that can happen only if U.S. News produces a list of “best law firms” that bears little resemblance to the rank ordering of the Am Law 100 in average equity partner profits. Such contradictory data would confuse newly minted attorneys and force them to develop their own criteria for decision.

The American Lawyer itself provides a useful example of the possibilities. Eight years ago, it began publishing the Am Law “A-List,” which has gained limited traction as a moderating influence on the Am Law average profits-per-equity-partner metric that otherwise dominates decision-making at most big firms. The A-List’s additional considerations bear on the quality of a young lawyer’s life — associate satisfaction, diversity, and pro bono activities. The myopic focus on short-term dollars still dominates decisions in most big firms, but the A-List has joined the conversation.

What methodology will U.S. News employ in evaluating law firms? If it follows the approach of its law school ranking counterparts, many firms will game the system, just as some law schools have. (See my earlier article, “THE U.S. NEWS RANKINGS ARE OUT!” (http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-us-news-rankings-are-out/)) But misguided and manipulatable metrics aren’t inevitable.

Talent is essential for any successful firm, large or small. Other qualities – collegiality, mentoring, community, high morale accompanying a shared sense of professional purpose – make a workplace special. Can the U.S. News find ways to measure those qualities?

That’s the challenge. But I fear that students won’t bother focusing on the U.S. News methodology or its flaws. More likely, whatever rankings emerge from the process will provide — as they have for so many deliberating the choice of a law school — an easy final answer.

Ceding such control over life’s direction to others is rarely a good idea. There is no substitute for personal  involvement in deciding the things that matter most. That means asking recruiters tough questions, scrutinizing the lives of a firm’s senior associates and partners, and finding role models who are living a life that a new attorney envisions for her- or himself.

In the end, the current large firm business model and its self-imposed associate/partner leverage ratios will continue to render success – defined as promotion to equity partnership — an elusive dream for most who seek it. For those who become dissatisfied with their jobs, time passes slowly. So everyone joining a big firm — even a person intending to remain only for the years required to repay student loans — has ample incentive to get that first big decision after law school correct.

So why would intelligent young attorneys let U.S. News’ self-proclaimed experts make it with something as silly as a ranking? Probably for the same reasons that they relied on U.S. News to make their law school decisions for them three years earlier.

Someday, maybe there will be a U.S. News formula for choosing a spouse. Then won’t life be simple?

YOGI BERRA’S WISDOM

As a change of pace — and to a different medium — today’s offering is “GEMS FROM THE DIAMOND,” my June 19 Convocation Address to Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences graduating class of 2010. It’s ten minutes long and available for online viewing. There are two options.

The first is on Northwestern’s You Tube Channel and replays the original webcast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP3Uhiol6Vs

The second includes a brief student introduction (Part I), followed by my speech as seen from the cheap seats (Part II): http://www.youtube.com/user/harperstevenj#p/u/1/jrMfosruCiA

Also on my You Tube channel containing the second version is a clip of a short reading from The Partnership at a recent book appearance. (http://www.youtube.com/user/harperstevenj#p/u/2/p5zOMn_-bAM)

THE US NEWS RANKINGS ARE OUT!

[UPDATE: This post first appeared on April 16, 2010. On January 1, 2011, Northwestern's former dean, David Van Zandt, became president of The New School in New York.]

Earlier this week, I spoke with one of my former Northwestern undergraduate students. Headed for a top law school this fall, he surprised me with this remark:

“A lot of my classmates are waiting to send in their law school deposits until the latest US News rankings come out this week.”

Seriously?

Virtually every law school dean has condemned US News’ annual effort to do for law schools what the Am Law 100 has been doing for big firms. Those of you reading my “PUZZLE PIECES” installments know that annual profits-per-partner rankings haven’t brought out the best in us. It’s all part of a larger contemporary phenomenon: the MBA mentality of misguided metrics.

Unfortunately, students aren’t listening to the unanimous chorus of skeptical law school deans. It’s easier to follow the simplistic approach of a lonely outlier, Northwestern’s David Van Zandt: however wrongheaded, metrics matter.

For a decade, he has refused to join colleagues criticizing US News’ fatally flawed methodology. (See, e.g., Brian Leiter’s analysis) A self-styled maverick, Van Zandt insists that ratings are relevant consumer information.

His position proves too much. Not all misinformation should be allowed to pollute decision-makers’ minds. That’s why fraud and misrepresentation causes of action exist. There’s another problem: pandering to the US News criteria distorts law school administrators’ decisions. Once misguided metrics become governing principles, thoughtful reflection disappears. Teaching to the test is easier than creating imaginative lesson plans.

Lately, metrics seem to be foresaking the maverick. In 2009, Northwestern dropped from 9 to 10 in the US News overall standings; this year, it fell to 11.

Rationalizing the decline, Van Zandt says that his innovative programs haven’t gained traction because of “resistance within a conservative profession.” He argues from aneccdotal evidence that the future will vindicate him. Apart from his inconsistency in crediting a positive rating that suits his purposes but discounting it when things breaks badly, some might accuse him of magical thinking.

Is it time for Van Zandt to back away from his isolated defense of the US News listings? Sure, but it won’t happen. In an April 13 Above the Law post, he urges even more rankings, however dubious their value.

In the end, he’s a misguided metrics kind of guy — at least until Northwestern drops again next year. [UPDATE: It did -- to 12th, but by the time the news hit, Van Zandt had already left to become president of The New School in New York.]