The National Law Journal just published its annual list of “go-to” schools — those that supply the most new associates to large law firms. Clearly, lower tier students aren’t alone in struggling to find jobs. One top school’s ride on the NLJ 250 rankings roller coaster is particularly interesting and instructive.
Northwestern jumped from eleventh to second place on the list in 2007. Then-Dean David Van Zandt credited the “tremendous effort to reach out to employers,” along with the emphasis on enrolling students with significant postgraduate work experience, as attracting big firm recruiters. Last year, Northwestern took the number one spot.
But in 2010, the school dropped to eighth — a relative decline that overall market trends don’t explain, but growing class size does. Northwestern awarded 234 JDs in 2007; the 2010 class had 50 more — 284. One reason: misguided short-term metrics became guiding principles.
Two years ago, the ABA Journal reported that Northwestern had become one of the most aggressive recruiters of transfer students (adding 43 to the first-year class). Such students were a win-win for short-term metrics-lovers: Their undisclosed LSATs didn’t count in the U.S. News rankings and their added tuition boosted the financial bottom line.
Meanwhile, Northwestern’s “go-to” position could continue dropping next year because the class of 2011 will include another new contingent — the first group of accelerated JDs. That program emerged from focus groups of large law firm leaders — part of the dean’s outreach program — who helped to shape Northwestern’s long-range strategic document, Plan 2008, Building Great Leaders for the Changing World.
That leads to another point: leadership. Defining a law school’s proper mission is critically important. There’s nothing wrong with getting input from all relevant constituencies, including large law firms. But retooling curriculum to fulfill big law’s stated desires for associate skills is a dubious undertaking.
In February 2010, Van Zandt explained his contrary rationale during a PLI presentation to large firm leaders. Simply put, he saw starting salaries as setting the upper limit that a school can charge for tuition. Accordingly, attending law school makes economic sense only if it leads to a job that offers a reasonable return on the degree’s required financial investment. However valid that perspective may be, the slipperiness of the resulting slope became apparent when Northwestern’s laudable goal — updating curriculum — focused on satisfying big firms that paid new graduates the most.
Tellingly, in the ABA’s Litigation quarterly, Van Zandt explained that high hourly rates made clients “unwilling to pay for the time a young lawyer spends learning on the job…As a result, the traditional training method of associate-partner mentoring gets sacrificed.” Law schools, he urged, should pick up that slack.
But the traditional training method gets sacrificed only because the firms’ prevailing business model doesn’t reward such uses of otherwise billable time. Rather than challenge leaders to reconsider their own organizations that produce staggering associate attrition rates and many dissatisfied attorneys, the dean embraced their short-term focus — maximizing current year profits per partner.
Relatively, Northwestern still fares well in the “go-to” rankings, but the data depict a dynamic exercise in magical thinking. Among the top 20 schools, it led the way in increasing class size as the school’s absolute big law placement numbers steadily declined: 172 in 2007; 154 in 2008; 142 in 2009; 126 in 2010.
Most law schools feel the continuing crunch. Overall, the top 50 law schools graduated 14,000 new lawyers in 2010; only 27% went to NLJ 250 firms — a drop of three percentage points (400 lawyers) from 2009. But that only highlights an obvious question: Why should that shrinking tail wag any dog? A diversified portfolio of career outcomes less dependent on large firms is a more prudent plan for schools and their students.
Even if jobs reappear, there’s another reason to combine balance with candor: Recent surveys indicate that a majority of large firm attorneys become dissatisfied with their careers anyway. Those metrics never appear on law school websites. Deans are uniquely positioned to help prospective students make informed decisions. They could serve the profession by focusing less on marketing and more on giving prospective students the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If only there were a metric for it.