The ABA is thinking about punishing law schools that lie. What courage!

At the front end of the experience, intentionally inflated undergraduate GPAs and LSATs for Villanova’s admitted students led to an ABA censure in August. The school must now employ an independent compliance monitor for two years. Next up in the hot seat: the University of Illinois College of Law. Now, at the back end, the ABA is considering imposing penalties on law schools that misrepresent graduate job placement data.

This one-school-at-a-time approach misses the larger targets. Along with many law schools’ dubious sales tactics, the ABA itself has contributed to the chronic oversupply of lawyers.

Don’t let a recent Wall Street Journal article about the declining number of law school applicants fool you. Excess supply persists. Although total applicants are down ten percent from last year, the number of students starting law school has actually been rising. Meanwhile, the projected growth in new attorney jobs remains far below what’s required to achieve full employment for lawyers hoping to work as lawyers.

In the fall of 2002, first-year enrollment was 48,400. By 2009 — the last year for which the LSAC has published information — it had climbed to 51,600. In other words, demand still exceeds supply. This year’s ten percent applicant drop — to 78,900 — won’t prompt schools to reduce capacity. Rather, it will encourage growth.

And the ABA isn’t stopping them. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of law schools increased from 144 to 200. During the same period, the total number of law students soared from 64,000 to 145,000.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be only 98,000 net additional legal jobs for the entire decade ending in 2018. At current enrollments, law schools will produce five times that many graduates; baby boomer retirements won’t bridge that gap.

Last year’s drop in applicants may mean that some recent graduates are giving more thought to whether law school is the right path. That would be great news for them and the profession. Unfortunately, the accreditation of new schools and the growth of existing ones is bad news for many would-be lawyers.

Having facilitated a situation that continues to inflict tragic consequences on many unsuspecting victims, the ABA has avoided leading serious remedial efforts. In light of its recent punt on the requirement that law schools report meaningful information about their graduates’ employment status, its now-contemplated scrutiny of individual schools’ placement statistics rings hollow. To wit: the Wal-Mart greeter with a law degree still counts as employed.

The ABA’s piecemeal approach won’t solve the problem. Most law schools are prisoners of short-term profit-maxizing business models and metrics. That’s why too many resort to half-truths or outright deception to enhance U.S. News rankings, pump up demand, and put tuition-paying butts in classrooms.

Until students understand the deep methodological flaws in the U.S. News rankings, too many deans will continue manipulating them. Independent audit of the data that schools submit would help. But it should be part of a larger strategy: providing better information to prospective law students long before they sit for the LSAT.

The law can be a noble calling, but it’s not for everyone. When those enrolling in law school understand what’s ahead — including the possibility that their dream jobs won’t be there — they make better decisions and the entire profession wins. Here’s the harsh truth that will surprise many recruits: Some deans don’t act with much nobility when it comes to pursuing tuition dollars.

In an 1891 letter to his fiance, Louis Brandeis wrote: “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” Twenty years later, he was less optimistic about improving human behavior when he focused instead on practical remedies for misconduct: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The ABA isn’t going to start stripping schools of their accreditations, but it can put them under brighter lights. Adding surveillance cameras and a few more cops on the beat wouldn’t hurt, either.

3 thoughts on “TOO LITTLE; TOO LATE

  1. This is all a terrible blot on the profession and legal academia.

    As I’ve said in the past, if law school deans and admissions officers were held to the same standards of disclosure as issuers or underwriters of securities (in addition to classes on ethics, don’t law schools still teach securities?), the federal Bureau of Prisons would be overflowing with law school academics. ( )

  2. To me, it seems that suppressing uninformed student demand for a law degree is necessary, but not sufficient. Even if, as Jerry suggests, law school employment/demand/supply disclosure requirements and practice reached the high standards applied to securities, that’s only half the equation.

    The core issue is the inability of lawyers to make a living practicing law due to oversupply.

    Becoming informed of relative demand will cause some to opt out of a law degree, but not enough to balance projected supply and demand.

    Human nature causes us to view many risks as something that will happen to somebody else, not us. Even well-documented cause/effect — such as smoking/chronic disease; obesity/diabetes; alcohol/traffic fatalities — doesn’t serve as sufficient decision influence or behavior deterrent.

    Given that human tendency, even if every law school candidate reviews all of the upgraded demand data, we’ll still have a ton of law students who believe that they’ll escape the odds and make it. After all, many do. If there are 20% too many lawyers, we know we’ll somehow be part of the 80%. And 80% of us will be right. Statistically, it’s not a bad gamble, really. Most of us, given an 80% chance of success, would go for it. We all have selective vision. We all see the misery of the 20%, but the law students see the fulfillment of the 80%. (It’s like estimating that a matter will cost “between $10,000 and $20,000.” The lawyer heard “$20,000.” The client heard “$10,000.”)

    The rest of the equation is for law schools to embrace the totality of the “become a lawyer” challenge, and fully prepare would-be lawyers. That means both the science of law and the business of law. Apply that third year to the business of law, the most important component of which is the ability to attract and acquire paying clients.

    Law is a business, and a fiercely competitive one now. Sticking one’s head in the sand and partying like it’s 1999, when virtually every lawyer had plenty of business, is stupid.

    Law schools shouldn’t be allowed to mint JDs without preparing them for reality. And reality includes the business of law, especially business development.

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