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.”

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.

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION — PART III

Money talks, especially to prospective law students concerned about educational debt. Tuition reduction programs promise some relief. Surely, scholarships conditioned on minimum GPAs are better.

Recently, the NY Times profiled a Golden Gate University School of Law student needing a 3.0 to keep her scholarship. By the end of her first year, she’d “curved out” at 2.967. Her Teamsters dad drove a tractor before he was laid off, but she and her parents came up with $60,000 in tuition to complete her degree.

Maybe that’s reasonable. A “B” average doesn’t seem difficult. Is this just whining from what some article comments called “the gimme generation”?

Only if the victims knew the truth. She has no paying job, legal or otherwise. That’s her true victimization, along with many others.

– Statistically possible v. doesn’t happen v. fully disclosed

Golden Gate imposes mandatory first-year curves limiting the number of As and Bs. In second and third year courses, the curves loosen or disappear. The profiled student graduated with a 3.14 GPA — a nice recovery, but too late for the lost scholarship.

According to the article, more than half of the current GGU first-year class has merit scholarships and Dean Drucilla Stender Ramey said it’s statistically possible for 70 percent of one Ls to maintain a 3.0 GPA — also the threshold for the Dean’s List. Even if she meant “theoretically” rather than “statistically” possible, I’m skeptical. The school’s handbook reports the mandatory range for those receiving a “B- and above” in first-year required courses: 45 percent (minimum) to 70 percent (maximum). And a B- is 2.67.

“[I]n recent years,” the article continued, “only the top third of students at Golden Gate wound up with a 3.0 or better, according to the dean…. She also maintains that Golden Gate 1Ls’s are well-informed about the odds they face in keeping scholarships.”

This sounds like the lawyer who tells the jury: 1) my client was out of town at the time of the murder; 2) if he was in town, he didn’t do it; and 3) whatever he did was in self-defense.

– Playing with fire

Why offer merit scholarships? U.S. News‘s rankings, says University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor Jerry Organ:

“Law schools are buying…higher GPAs and LSATs.”

Albany Law School Dean Thomas F. Guernsey notes that such catering to the rankings has “strange and unintended consequences,” such as reducing need-based financial aid by redirecting it to those who otherwise “will go somewhere else.”

U.S. News doesn’t collect merit scholarship retention data because, according to rankings guru Robert Morse, “[W]e haven’t thought about it…[T]hese students are going to law school and they need to learn to read the fine print.”

That’s among the least of many profound flaws in the U.S. News methodology. Law school deans know them all, yet pandering to the rankings persists while students and the profession pay the price.

Somewhere in the cumulative behavior of certain schools lies an interesting class action. Particularly vulnerable are recruiters operating at the outer limits of candor to attract students who accumulate staggering loans and no jobs.

Imagine forcing some deans to answer these questions — under oath:

– Where did you go to law school? (That’s foundational — to show they’re smart; for example, GGU’s Dean Ramey graduated from Yale.)

– How many graduates did you put on your school’s temporary payroll solely to boost your U.S. News “nine months after graduation” employment rate? (I don’t know about GGU, but others have.)

– How many have full-time paying jobs requiring a JD? (GGU’s nine-month employment rate is 87.2% of 143 “reporting” 2009 graduates, but the “number with salary” is only 41 (or 29%). Two-thirds of “reporting graduates” had jobs requiring bar passage; only half held permanent positions. And who’s not “reporting”?)

– How many merit recipients lose scholarships? What did you tell those hot prospects when you enticed them with first-year money? Ultimately, how much did they pay for their degrees?

Ironically, even bold typeface disclosure might not change some prospective students’ minds because facts yield to confirmation bias. Convinced that they’ll overcome daunting odds to become winners, they can’t all be right.

Still, the potential class of law student plaintiffs grows by the thousands every year. If they ever file their lawsuit, the defendant(s) better get good lawyers.