BULLET DODGED? OR REDIRECTED TOWARD YOU?

For the past six months, Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego seemed poised to become the first ABA-accredited law school to fail since the Great Recession began. For anyone paying attention to employment trends in the legal sector, the passage of six years without a law school closing somewhere is itself remarkable. It also says much about market dysfunction in legal education.

In his November 5 column in the New York TimesUniversity of California-Berkeley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon has a different view. Solomon argues that recent enrollment declines prove that a functioning market has corrected itself: “[T]he bottom is almost here for law schools. This is how economics works: Markets tend to overshoot on the way up, and down.”

Solomon urges that the proper course is to keep marginal law schools such as Thomas Jefferson alive for a while “and see what happens.” I disagree.

Take Thomas Jefferson, Please

As I’ve discussed previously, in 2008 the school issued bonds for a new building. When the specter of default loomed large in early 2014, the question was whether some accommodation with bondholders would keep the school alive. Solomon suggests that creditors made the only deal possible and the school is the ultimate winner. He gives little attention to the real losers in this latest example of a legal education market that is not working: Thomas Jefferson’s students, the legal profession, and taxpayers.

In retrospect, the restructuring agreement between the school and its bondholders reveals that a deal was always likely. That’s because both sides could use other people’s money to make it, as they have since 2008.

According to published reports, interest on the taxable portion of the 2008 bond issuance was 11 percent. Tax-exempt bondholders earned more than 7 percent interest. Thanks to federally-backed student tuition loans, taxpayers then subsidized the school’s revenue streams that provided quarterly interest and principal payments to those bondholders.

Outcomes? Irrelevant In This Market

Last year, Thomas Jefferson accepted 80 percent of applicants. According to its latest required ABA disclosures, first-year attrition was over 30 percent. The school’s California bar passage rate for first-time takers in February and July 2012 was 54 percent, compared to the state average of 71 percent.

Solomon cites the school’s other dismal statistics, but ignores their implications. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s low bar passage rate made no difference to most of its graduates because the full-time long-term bar passage-employment rate for the class of 2013 was 29 percent, as it was for the class of 2012.

Meanwhile, its perennially high tuition (currently $44,900 a year) put Thomas Jefferson #1 on the U.S. News list of schools whose students incurred the greatest law school indebtedness: $180,665 for the class of 2013. According to National Jurist, the school generates 95 percent of its income from tuition.

It’s Alive

This invites an obvious question: How did the school survive so long and what is prolonging its life?

First, owing to unemployed recent graduates with massive student loans, bondholders received handsome quarterly payments for more than five years — much of it tax-exempt interest. The disconnect between student outcomes and the easy availability for federal loans blocked a true market response to a deteriorating situation. Bondholders should also give an appreciative nod to federal taxpayers who are guaranteeing those loans and will foot the bill for graduates entering income-based loan forgiveness programs.

Second, headlines touted Thomas Jefferson’s new deal as “slashing debt” by $87 million, but bondholders now own the law school building and will reportedly receive a market rate rent from the school — $5 million a year. Future student loans unrelated to student outcomes will provide those funds.

Third, the school issued $40 million in new bonds that will pay the current bondholders two percent interest. Student loan debt will make those payments possible.

Net-net, win-win, lose-lose

The bottom line benefit for Thomas Jefferson is immediate relief from its current cash crunch. Instead of $12 million in principal and interest payments annually, the school will pay $6 million in rent and bond interest — funded by students who borrow to obtain a Thomas Jefferson law degree of dubious value.

“I think the whole deal is a reflection of the fact that the bondholders were very desirous for us to succeed,” [Thomas Jefferson Dean Thomas] Guernsey said.

Actually, it reflects the bondholders’ ability to tap into the proceeds of future federal student loans as they cut a deal with a wounded adversary. Instead of cash flow corresponding to bond interest rates of 7 and 11 percent, bondholders will receive about half that amount, along with an office building and the tax advantages that come with ownership (e.g., depreciation deductions). Think of it as refinancing your home mortgage, except the bank gets to keep your house.

Erroneous Assumptions Produce Dubious Strategies

“This restructuring is a major step toward achieving our goals,” said Thomas Guernsey, dean of Thomas Jefferson. “It puts the school on a solid financial footing.”

Throwing furniture into the fireplace to keep the house warm is not a viable long-run survival strategy. Consider future students and their willingness to borrow as the “furniture” and you have a picture of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s business plan.

Meanwhile, Solomon echoes the hopes of law school faculty and administrators everywhere when he says, “[T]he decline in enrollment could lead to a shortage of lawyers five years from now.”

In assuming a unitary market demand for lawyers, he conflates the separate and distinct submarkets for law school graduates. His resulting leap of faith is that a rising tide — even if it arrives — will lift Thomas Jefferson’s boat and the debt-ridden graduates adrift in it. It won’t.

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