Recently, I suggested that the ABA House of Delegates reject the June 17 Report of the Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education. The Task Force was supposed to tackle the crisis of massive student loan debt that is subsidizing marginal law schools. Its Report not only fails to fulfill that mission, but also ignores the central problem of a dysfunctional legal education market. As a consequence, it offers superficial recommendations that will accomplish little.
Doomed from the Start; Flawed at the Finish
As I observed when the ABA announced the creation of the Task Force in May 2014, no one should have reasonably expected its chairman, Dennis Archer — who is also chairman of the national policy board for Infilaw — to point his group in the direction of true market-based reform that would jeopardize revenues at marginal law schools. After all, Infilaw is a private equity-owned consortium of three for-profit law schools with dismal full-time long-term JD-required employment outcomes: Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal.
On August 4, the ABA House of Delegates gave the Task Force Report a rubber stamp of approval by adopting five “Resolutions.” Only two are even operative; the remaining three now go the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Together, they constitute an abdication of the ABA’s role in an important national discussion.
Let’s start with the two resolutions that don’t require additional action by the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. We’ll call them “urging” and “encouraging,” which means they are essentially toothless.
One asks the ABA to “urge all participants in the student loan business and process, including law schools, to develop and publish easily understood versions of the terms of various loan and repayment programs.”
The other asks the ABA to “encourage law schools to be innovative in developing ways to balance responsible curricula, cost effectiveness, and new revenue streams.”
On to Another Committee…
The remaining three resolutions “encourage” another ABA Committee to adopt equally ineffective measures: “enhanced financial counseling for students (prospective and current) on student loans and repayment programs,” “return to collecting expenditure, revenue, and financial aid data annually for each law school,” and “make public the information on legal education it currently maintains and information it collects going forward.”
It took the Task Force more than a year to come up with its recommendations. Expect another year or more to pass before the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar acts on the Task Force’s “encouragement.” If the Council takes up these issues, expect law schools to fight major battles resisting disclosure of their financial affairs. But it doesn’t really matter what the Council does or how long it takes because none of the recommendations will make a difference to the core problem: lack of individual law school-specific financial accountability for graduates’ poor employment outcomes.
One More Thing
On July 29, NPR’s Marketplace ran a brief report on the larger crisis in legal education. In his NPR interview, Dennis Archer defended his Task Force’s Report, saying, “People make choices about their lives. And they make choices every day.”
In the current dysfunctional financing regime that his Task Force refused to confront, law schools make choices, too. However, once students pay their tuition bills, law schools have no financial accountability for what happens next. Stated differently, the weakest law schools have the freedom to make the bad choice of maximizing enrollments, tuition revenues, and student debt, even if most of their graduates have dismal JD-required job prospects upon graduation.
The ABA makes choices, too. In the ongoing debate concerning one of the nation’s most pressing issues, it has chosen to remain silent. The next generation of potential ABA members is taking notice.