THE CHARLOTTE SCHOOL OF LAW AND A WHISTLEBLOWER

The latest developments at the Charlotte School of Law are the culmination of regulatory capture. The last significant ABA task force addressing the crisis in legal education kicked the can down the road, as did all of its predecessors. That came as no surprise because the head of the task force was Dennis W. Archer. He also chaired the national policy board of InfiLaw, a consortium of Charlotte and two other marginal for-profit law schools owned by venture capitalists.

The Persistent Problem

Without the ability to exploit vulnerable prospective law students willing to incur six-figure law school debt in return for limited prospects of meaningful JD-required jobs, the InfiLaw schools—Charlotte, Arizona Summit, and Florida Coastal School of Law—probably would have gone out of business long ago. It’s a safe bet that InfiLaw’s owners would not send their kids to any of them.

Only recently did the ABA take steps to revoke Charlotte’s accreditation. The school lost access to student loan money, and now its doors are closed. In March 2017, the ABA put Arizona Summit on probation for reasons that included a 25 percent bar exam passage rate for its July 2016 graduates taking the test for the first time. Florida Coastal’s 2016 graduates are faring so poorly in the job market that its end may be in sight: only 36 percent of graduates obtained full-time long-term JD-required jobs. Meanwhile, Florida Coastal grads have the distinction of obtaining degrees from a school that is among the leaders in law school debt: almost $160,000. Arizona Summit’s grads are right up there with them.

For years, InfiLaw has been a poster child for a persistent problem, but it’s not the only offender. Ten years after the Great Recession decimated the demand for new law school graduates, the ABA has ignored a perverse incentive system arising from a dysfunctional market. Specifically, marginal law schools lack accountability for their graduates’ poor job prospects. Those schools live on student loans—which is to say that they would die without them. But once students make their tuition payments, their schools have no skin in the game.

Even Archer’s task force report acknowledged that 25 percent of law schools derive at least 88 percent of their revenues from tuition. The overriding goal becomes maximizing revenues by filling classroom seats with tuition-paying bodies. At most marginal schools, that has meant lowering admission standards–an action that later reflects itself in declining bar passage rates for graduates. The result: unemployed law school graduates are burdened with enormous non-dischargeable debt for degrees of dubious value.

What Will It Take?

Perhaps a Charlotte whistleblower will bring change to a profession that has shown a consistent unwillingness to police itself. The allegations from former Charlotte School of Law Professor Barbara Bernier, who filed suit in June 2016 under the False Claims Act, prompted a federal investigation. She alleges that the school defrauded taxpayers of more than $285 million over a five-year period. According to the suit, Charlotte used dubious tactics to shore up the school’s performance numbers, protect its accreditation, and keep federal student loan dollars flowing.

Bernier claims that admissions officers had quotas of students they had to accept to keep their jobs. She alleges that over a six-year period beginning in 2010, 1,355 substandard students were enrolled, resulting in improper government payments to the school totaling $285 million. She asserts that the school discouraged some students from taking the bar exam because it thought they were likely to fail. Even so, the school’s pass rate has dropped steadily and its February 2017 results were the worst in the state: 25 percent. For those repeating the exam, the February 2017 news was worse: 18 percent passed.

How could this happen? A better question is, why wouldn’t it? Bernier’s allegations are consistent with revenue-maximizing behavior that the current law school business model incentivizes without regard to graduates’ outcomes.

“At Charlotte, there was constant talk of investors — referring to the school’s owners,” the Charlotte School of Law whistleblower professor told The New York Times, “and the focus was on the number of students. They were bringing them in and setting them up and then failing them out.”

InfiLaw has until Oct. 20 to file a formal answer to the complaint. Perhaps someday its owners and those who run other marginal law schools across the country will answer to their students who leave such institutions with big debt and limited JD-required job prospects. Every year, the ranks of those alumni grow.

STUDENT LOANS AND BETSY DeVOS

Into the teeth of the student loan crisis walked Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. She’s already making it worse.

The problem goes far beyond DeVos’ embarrassing ignorance on display at her confirmation hearing, Her main qualification for Trump’s cabinet appears to have been her status as a Republican billionaire-donor. She knows nothing about basic educational policy, the decades-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, fraud by for-profit colleges and graduate schools exploiting students, or any other subject about which an aspiring Secretary of Education should have at least some rudimentary knowledge.

Why DeVos?

None of DeVos’ shortcomings kept Trump Party senators from confirming her. With an expertise in lobbying, she pushed Michigan money away from public education and into charter schools that had little or no accountability for their dismal performance. And Michigan now leads all states in the number of charter schools operated for a profit.

For law students, DeVos’ actions in Michigan are more than just a troubling analogy. In an earlier post, I wrote about Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, which has a marginal law school. His newest assignment is leading Trump’s task force on deregulating higher education. Most law schools — especially those whose graduates have the toughest time finding meaningful JD-required jobs — love the idea of deregulating an already dysfunctional market that props them up.

Law School Winners

If marginal schools had to operate in a completely competitive market, many would have closed their doors long ago. As they lowered admission standards and admitted students who produced declining bar passage rates, federal student loan dollars have kept them afloat. Trump embraces deregulation as a panacea. But that’s because, as with so many things, he lacks an understanding of how the absence of regulation would make the currently dysfunctional market in legal education even worse.

Only federal student loans keep the worst law schools in business. Educational debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and federal guarantees add another layer of protection for schools that don’t deserve it. Meanwhile, schools themselves have no accountability for their students’ poor bar passage rates or dismal employment prospects.

The Obama administration had been making life more difficult for schools that exploit students and leave them deeply in debt from which many will never recover. Specifically, schools that grossly underperformed for their students faced the prospect of losing eligibility for the federal student loan program. Charlotte Law School felt that heat directly.

The Other Shoes Dropped

Less than a week after Falwell’s task force appointment, Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate confirmed Devos as Secretary of Education. Immediately, she chose advisers:

— Robert S. Eitel, an attorney, is on unpaid leave of absence from his job as a top lawyer for Bridgepoint Education, Inc., a for-profit college operator whose stock is up 40 percent since November 9. Bridgepoint faces multiple government investigations, including one that ended in a $30 million settlement with the federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau over deceptive student lending.

— Until July 2016, Taylor Hansen was a lobbyist for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the largest trade group of for-profit colleges. In June 2016, his mission was to eliminate the government’s “gainful employment” rule, which can cost a school federal funding if too many of its recent graduates fail to repay their student loans. But then Hansen became a DeVos adviser and a member of the Education Department’s “beachhead” team — a group of temporary employees that doesn’t require Senate approval. On March 6, the Department announced a three-month delay in deadlines associated with the gainful employment rule.

On March 14, ProPublica reported on Hansen’s unseemly status. On March 20, Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent the ProPublica article with a letter to DeVos asking for an explanation. Hansen resigned the same day.

Bottom line: If you’re counting on help in dealing with the worsening student loan crisis, count the Trump administration out.

JERRY FALWELL JR.’S NEW ASSIGNMENT

Since his inauguration, Donald Trump has dominated news cycles with chaos. It was easy to miss his new task force charged with deregulating higher education. The leader is Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University.

“The goal is to pare it back and give colleges and their accrediting agencies more leeway in governing their affairs,” said Falwell, an evangelical leader with a law degree.

Heaven help us all.

Liberty University

Falwell’s father founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. It thrives on federal student loan and grant dollars — $347 million for undergraduates alone in 2015, according to The New York Times. Liberty’s nominal student loan default rate within three years of graduation is nine percent. But only 38 percent of Liberty borrowers are paying down at least one dollar on their student loan principal amounts within three years of leaving the school. The Times also reports that six years after entering college, 41 percent of Liberty students earn less than $25,000 a year. That’s about what a typical 25-year-old with only a high school diploma earns.

For years, law schools have been the leading edge of this crisis. Falwell’s Liberty University has one of those, too. Tuition is $32,000 a year. Twenty percent of first-year students entering in 2014 left for academic reasons. Of 61 students who graduated in 2015, only half got full-time long-term jobs requiring a J.D. —  including one graduate who went to work for Liberty. There was some relatively good news: the average debt load for Liberty’s class of 2015 students who borrowed for law school was $68,000 — a lot lower than the $112,000 average for all law schools.

Reversal of Fortune 

Any progress that the Obama administration made to increase accountability in higher education seems destined for Trump’s dustbin. The Department of Education had put heat on schools that were exploiting students who incurred enormous educational debt for degrees of dubious value. Last summer, one of the department’s advisory committees took the American Bar Association to task for allowing law schools to run such scams. In November, the ABA put Charlotte Law School on probation while the school tried to work out its problems. In December, Charlotte lost its eligibility for federal student loans and its death spiral accelerated.

At long last, someone noticed that federal money was allowing bottom-feeder law schools to stay in business. But the legal profession’s accrediting agency – the types of organizations that Falwell says he wants to vest with greater decision-making power – hadn’t pulled the trigger on Charlotte. The DOE had.

President Obama also moved the vast majority of student lending from the private sector to the federal government. The expectation is that Trump will move it back. Since the election, the stock prices of private student lenders and loan servicing companies have soared. They’re a good bet. Federal guarantees protect lenders; borrowers can’t discharge educational debt in bankruptcy.

The end result is that marginal schools still have no financial skin in the game. They keep filling classrooms with students who borrow huge sums for degrees that aren’t worth it. Income-based repayment programs may provide some relief, but eventually someone will figure out that the U.S. Treasury will wind up footing that bill, which could become a very big number. When loan forgiveness programs shrink or disappear, an entire generation will live — and, in many cases, die — with educational debt incurred to pay the big salaries of people like Jerry Falwell, Jr.

How much damage could Falwell’s task force do? Plenty. The ABA is institutionally incapable of cracking down on law schools that should have closed long ago or never opened at all. Watch out for this: If the federal student loan spigot reopens for Charlotte Law School, there’s no bottom in sight.

What Would Jesus Do?

Jerry Falwell, Jr. was an anchor of Trump’s evangelical constituency. As president of Liberty, he earns $900,000 a year. In fact, Falwell said Trump offered him the Secretary of Education position that DeVos now occupies, but he turned it down. Trump wanted a four-to-six year commitment; Falwell reportedly said he couldn’t afford to work at a cabinet-level job for more than two years.

As Falwell and others like him prosper, their students suffer. Now that Falwell is in charge of deregulating higher education, Trump’s victory speech after winning the Nevada primary last year takes on new meaning: “We won the evangelicals… We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

I suspect Jerry Falwell, Jr. loves the poorly educated, too. When it comes to selling a dubious degree from a marginal school, they’re especially inviting targets.

THE ABA IS RAISING THE WRONG BAR

“[W]hen we look at these low performing schools, you guys are doing absolutely nothing.”

So said a member of the Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity last June. I wrote about the painful session in August. The question on the table was whether the American Bar Association should lose its power to accredit law schools. The ABA leaders on the receiving end of that stinging rebuke had expected routine approval. What they got instead was a three-hour thrashing.

Disaster Avoided

The ABA beat back the committee’s recommendation of a 12-month suspension of its accreditation power. Even worse, it learned nothing from the episode. That became apparent in October, when the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar recommended a rule change that it thought was monumental. It’s actually far too little coming far too late.

The new rule would require at least a 75 percent of a law school’s graduates to pass a state bar exam within two years of receiving their degrees. The current standard requires a 75 percent pass rate within five years. Since 2000, only four law schools have faced difficulty under the current standard, and all were restored to full accreditation.

Looming Disaster Remains

The Department of Education’s heat directed at schools taking advantage of their students could cool significantly under President Trump, who recently paid $25 million to settle former students’ fraud claims against Trump University. The troubling law school backstory is a less dramatic variation on the same theme.

Plummeting national bar passage rates coupled with growing student debt for degrees of dubious value are the culmination of a dysfunctional market in legal education. That dysfunction is taking a cruel toll on a generation vulnerable to exploitation by elders who know better. Sooner or later, we’ll all pay the price.

The ABA’s latest misfire toward a remedy misses the key point: even passing the bar doesn’t mean getting a law job. Within 10 months of graduation, fewer than 60 percent of 2015 graduates obtained full-time long-term employment requiring bar passage. Compared to the class of 2014, the number of such positions declined by 10 percent (from 26,248 to 23,687). The total number of 2015 graduates: 40,000.

Students attending marginal schools bear the greatest burden. Their schools use a business model that relies on federal student loan dollars to fill classrooms. Because schools have no accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes, they are free to dip ever deeper into the well of unqualified applicants. Prospective employers have noticed.

Disaster For Many Students

The ABA’s persistent refusal to confront the employment rate problem brought the Department of Education into the picture. At the June hearing, committee members posed tough questions that ABA Managing Director Barry Currier had a tougher time answering. As some marginal schools received huge federal dollars, the committee noted, the vast majority of their graduates couldn’t get law jobs.

Now the ABA proposes tinkering at the edges. Even at that, based on the outrage generated from some inside the professorial ranks, you’d think it was trying to do something truly revolutionary. Some educators complained that shortening the 75 percent bar passage rate period from five years to two would discourage schools from admitting minority candidates, thereby leading to a less diverse profession.

That’s a non sequitur. If an additional three years after graduation is needed for some graduates to pass the bar, whatever they’re learning during that post-graduate period can’t be coming from their former classrooms. And, of course, nothing in the ABA proposal solves the employment problem.

Disaster Rewards a Few

As educators rely on student debt to keep their law schools operating, they’re getting paid, regardless of how their graduates fare in the job market. That frames the issue with which the ABA should be grappling but continues to dismiss: Marginal law schools are unable place most of their graduates in full-time long-term bar passage-required jobs.

Solving that problem requires schools to have financial skin in the game. Here’s one suggestion: tie the availability of a student’s federal loan dollars to a law school’s employment outcomes. That would create accountability that no dean or administrator currently possesses. And they sure don’t want it.

The ABA is institutionally incapable of embracing the change required to create a functional market in legal education. Vested interests are too embedded. The clout of the marginal schools is too great.

For example, the head of the ABA’s last “task force” on the challenges of financing legal education was also serving as the chairman of the national policy board of the Infilaw consortium of for-profit law schools, including the Charlotte School of Law. In fact, Dennis W. Archer still chairs the Infilaw national policy board. On November 15, Charlotte was the subject of a rare event: the ABA placed the school on probation because of its admissions practices. The ABA also ordered public disclosure of its bar passage rates.

But the ABA didn’t address the bigger problem with Charlotte that afflicts students at similar schools: dismal full-time long-term bar-passage required employment rates. Charlotte’s rate for the class of 2015 was 26 percent — down from 38 percent in 2012. Here’s the real kicker: from 2011 to 2015, the number of graduates at Charlotte increased from 97 to 456.

Growing supply in response to shrinking demand. That’s what happens when the people running law schools view students as revenue streams for which the schools will never have any financial accountability. The federal government backs the loans; educational debt survives personal bankruptcy; many in a generation of young would-be attorneys begin adulthood in a deep, six-figure financial hole.

Perhaps President-elect Trump will identify with the plight of the student-victims of this continuing disaster. Where would he be today if he had not been able to discharge his business loans through a string of bankruptcy filings? Not in the White House, that’s for sure.

INDIANA TECH: ANOTHER COSTLY LESSON IGNORED

I’ll have more to say about the election, but not today. Instead, let’s take a closer look at a story that got lost in the shuffle of presidential politics. It deserves more attention than it received.

Back in 2013, when Indiana Tech opened the state’s fifth law school, I wrote that the decision was the latest example of pervasive legal market dysfunction. As the number of applicants declined, marginal schools increasingly were admitting students who wouldn’t be able to pass the bar, much less get decent jobs requiring a JD. Schools such as Indiana Tech were continuing to inflate the growing lawyer bubble, which was also the title of my 2013 book. (Proving that some things never change, it came out in paperback earlier this year.)

The central contributor to that bubble remains in place. Specifically, the federal student loan program absolves marginal law schools of accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes, while encouraging administrators to fill classrooms with tuition-paying bodies. The results are predictable: lower admission standards, lower bar passage rates, and burgeoning law student debt for degrees of dubious value from marginal schools.

Victims of a Doomed Experiment

Indiana Tech’s inaugural class of first-year students began their studies in August 2013. Two years later, the school failed in its first attempt to get ABA accreditation. Further proving the ABA’s failure to address the continuing crisis in legal education, it granted Indiana Tech provisional accreditation earlier this year. The school graduated its first twelve students in 2016; only one passed the bar exam. Another passed on appeal, and a third passed the bar in another state.

On October 31, 2016, the school’s 71 students received an unwelcome Halloween surprise. The board of trustees announced its unanimous vote to close forever on June 30, 2017.

Indiana Tech President Arthur Snyder’s statement said, “[F]or the foreseeable future, the law school will not be able to attract students in sufficient numbers for the school to remain viable.”

Here’s the thing. President Snyder’s observation was equally true in 2011 — when the school completed its feasibility study and announced the decision to move forward. But rather than confront obvious facts about the demand for legal education that were apparent to everyone else, President Snyder insisted in 2013:

“We have given this decision careful research and consideration, and we believe we can develop a school that will attract and retain talented individuals who will contribute to our region’s economic development.”

Thanks to President Snyder and Indiana Tech’s board of trustees, those individuals — students and faculty — now face a tough and uncertain road.

Seeking Answers

What could have motivated such an obviously bad decision to open a new law school in the teeth of a lawyer glut? The answer is pretty simple. Snyder is a business guy. He has an MBA in strategic management from Wilmington University and a doctorate in education (innovation and leadership) from Wilmington University. Before joining the academic world, he spent more than 20 years in the telecommunications industry, rising to the position of vice president for the Data Systems Division of AT&T.

For someone focused on a bottom line approach to running higher education, adding a law school probably seemed like a no-brainer. In a 2011 interview for the National Law Journal, Snyder explained his strategy. Noting that about half of Indiana residents who attended ABA-approved law schools were doing so out of state, he said, “There are potential students who desire a law school education who cannot get that education in this area….”

Capturing that segment of the market was a strange premise upon which to build the case for a new law school. Which Indiana students admitted to established out-of-state schools did he expect to jump to an unaccredited newcomer?

The Real Play For Dollars

Like most law schools that should have closed their doors long ago, Indiana Tech’s business strategy sought to exploit market dysfunction. If the school could attract a sufficient number of aspiring attorneys to Fort Wayne, student loan dollars for tuition would take care of everything else, including a spiffy new building:

“The Indiana Tech Law School contains eight state-of-the-art classrooms, a courtroom, several learning and relaxation spaces for students including lounges and an outdoors patio, a three-story library, and everything else our students need to make their time here a successful and rewarding experience.”

Would graduates obtain decent full-time long-term jobs requiring the Indiana Tech JD degrees costing them close to $100,000? That would never become President Snyder’s problem.

The Opposite of Leadership

After the ABA denied Indiana Tech provisional accreditation in 2015, the handwriting was on the wall. But Snyder doubled down on a bad bet. The school tried to bolster admissions with a loss leader: a one-year tuition scholarship to students who enrolled in the fall of 2015. Anyone who took that deal is now twisting in the wind.

Indiana Tech reportedly lost $20 million. But its failed business strategy, followed by gimmicks that could never save it, produced dozens of real-life human victims whose damage is immeasurable. Those people don’t count in calculating Indiana Tech’s profit-and-loss statement. Except as conduits for federal student loan dollars, it’s fair to ask if they ever counted at all.

In his 2011 interview about the then-planned new law school, President Snyder suggested that Indiana Tech law school could be the first to offer a joint JD and master in science degree in leadership. He thought it would be an especially good fit because the university already has several programs in leadership.

Sometimes the most important learning in life comes from careful observation of negative role models. Speaking of negative role models, as I said at the beginning, I’ll have more to say about the election results in the days and weeks to come.

THE ABA’S TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY

It’s a mere formality. Every five years, the Department of Education renews the ABA’s power to accredit law schools. The June 2016 session before a DOE advisory committee (NACIQI) was supposed to be just another step in the rubber-stamping process. The NACIQI staff had recommended approval. The committee’s three-day session contemplated action on a dozen other accrediting bodies, ranging from the American Psychological Association to the American Theological Schools. Sandwiched between acupuncture and health education, the agenda contemplated an hour for the ABA.

What could go wrong?

For starters, committee members grilled the ABA’s representatives for an entire afternoon.

Questions About Law Student Debt?

First up for the ABA was the chair of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Rebecca White Berch. A committee member asked how the ABA assessed schools based on the interrelationship between student debt, bar passage rate, and graduate placement rates. Justice Berch said the ABA was looking “for a bar passing rate of 75 percent…. [W]as that part of your question?”

Actually, that was just a proposal set for an ABA Section hearing on August 6, but it wasn’t what the NACIQI had in mind.

NACIQI Member: “Sorry, no. I think my question also went to concern related to debt that students incurred while in law school and relationship of that to placement.”

ABA Managing Director Barry Currier tried to field that one:

“With respect to debt, we have been following a disclosure model for a number of years now and a lot of information is disclosed… [W]e collect information about student borrowing, but it is currently not part of the consumer information that schools are required to post with us… [T]here is no standard about how much debt is too much debt at this point in time.”

Let the squirming begin.

“So it may be,” Currier continued, “that as evidence mounts that students don’t shop very effectively and that as uncapped student loans are available, that we need to be more paternalistic, if you will, or more — we may need to make more information required and adopt standards around how much debt is too much debt.”

Placement Rates?

NACIQI: “What would be an appropriate placement rate for a law school?”

Currier: “Well our standards do not require any specific employment…[W]e don’t have a specific standard that a school must achieve in terms of placement.”

NACIQI: “But you are the ones who identified that legal education is very expensive… And if they can’t find a job it wrecks their lives.”

NACIQI: “[Y]ou can tell a lot from some of these low performing schools. And a school that sticks out to me is Whittier Law School in California… [T]he enrollment has dropped 51 percent since 2010, yet tuition has increased 31 percent since 2008.”

He wasn’t finished.

“Over 105 million dollars of Title IV funding has gone into this school. All the while, one in four graduates of this law school has obtained a full-time attorney job within nine months… Appalachian School of Law, University of LaVerne, Golden Gate, all have abysmal placement rates… [S]o I guess my question is specifically related to these low performing institutions: what are you guys doing?”

Then he answered his own question:

“[W]hen we look at these low performing schools, you guys are doing absolutely nothing.”

Can We Talk About Something Else?

Justice Berch’s attempt to change the subject was unavailing.

NACIQI: “We are talking about student debt, right, so — I guess you are not answering my question, and so I would like for us to stay on that… I just want to make sure we are talking about what is your responsibility and your response to these lower performing schools. I mean, have they been put on probation? That’s my first question.”

Justice Berch: You make a valid point. The answer is — has anyone yet been put on probation? No…”

NACIQI: “How many institutions have you denied accreditation to for low pass rates?

Justice Berch: For low pass rates alone, none.”

NACIQI: “Over the past five years how many institutions have you withdrawn your accreditation from?”

Currier: “Zero, zero.”

You Think The ABA Can’t Do The Job?

During the NACIQI’s discussion on the motion to recommend renewal of the ABA’s accreditation power, one member put the problem bluntly:

“I am troubled that the ABA just simply isn’t independent enough for this responsibility… I find it very difficult to think that they are going to be objective enough to continue to carry out this responsibility. And I reluctantly conclude that the ABA is not the appropriate accreditor for our law schools…[T]he crushing debt load on thousands and thousands of students is too serious for us… And I think the debt load is not going to get better if we say yes to this motion.”

Another member added: “I think that objectivity is important as you go through this process, so I would think an independent body that does not have the conflict of interest that the ABA has.”

It’s Worse Than They Thought

The NACIQI didn’t consider a recent illustration of the ABA’s independence problems. Former ABA President Dennis Archer is chairman of the national policy board of Infilaw — a consortium of three for-profit law schools. At those schools — Arizona Summit, Florida Coastal, and the Charlotte School of Law — students graduate with six-figure debt and dismal prospects for a meaningful job requiring bar passage. (Full-time long-term JD-required job placement rate ten months after 2015 graduation: Arizona Summit — 40 percent; Florida Coastal — 39 percent; Charlotte — 26 percent.)

On November 18, 2013, Archer and Infilaw’s chief executive officer co-signed a seven-page tour de force warning the DOE about the perils of applying the “Gainful Employment Rule” to “proprietary law schools and first professional degree schools in general.” The letter (on Infilaw stationery) argued, among other things, that the proposed rule was unnecessary because the ABA — as an accrediting body — ensures that InfiLaw “must offer an education that will help students achieve their goals.”

Six months later, Archer became chairman of the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing Legal Education. A year later — June 2015 — the Task Force acknowledged that 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their revenues from tuition. But it refused to recommend an obvious remedy: financial penalties for schools where students incur massive law school debt in exchange for dismal long-term JD-required job prospects.

The Task Force’s recommendations were embarrassingly inadequate, but the ABA House of Delegates accepted them.

One More Chance?

The ABA’s culture of self-interest and insularity has now created a bigger mess. Some NACIQI members favored the “nuclear” option: recommending denial of the ABA’s accrediting authority altogether. The committee opted to send a “clear message” through less draconian means.

The final recommendation was to give the ABA a 12-month period during which it would have no power to accredit new law schools. Thereafter, the ABA would report its progress in addressing the committee’s concerns, including the massive debt that students are incurring at law schools with poor JD-required placement rates.

As one member put it, “It is great to collect data, but they don’t have any standard on placement. What’s the point of collecting data if you can’t…use the data to help the students and protect the students…”

Another member summarized the committee’s view of the ABA: “This feels like an Agency that is out of step with a crisis in its profession, out of step with the changes in higher ed, and out of step with the plight of the students that are going through the law schools.”

The day of reckoning may not be at hand, but it’s getting closer.

LAW SCHOOLS AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

On June 17, Noam Scheiber’s article, “An Expensive Law Degree and No Place to Use It,” appeared in The New York Times. He focused on individual human tragedies resulting from the legal education bubble.

Four days later, Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon countered with his Times column, “Law School Still a Solid Investment, Despite Pay Discrepancies.” Notwithstanding the title, he’s moving in Scheiber’s direction.

Learning from Mistakes

Professor Solomon’s prior ventures into legal education haven’t gone particularly well. In November 2014, he wrote “[T]he decline in enrollment could lead to a shortage of lawyers five years from now.” Highlighting Thomas Jefferson School of Law as one of the marginal schools fighting to remain alive, Solomon suggested, “It may be tempting to shut them in these difficult times, but it can cost tens of millions to open a new one. Better to invest and cut back on expenses for a while and see what happens.”

Consistent with his area of expertise — financial and securities regulation — Professor Solomon was relying on the market to work. But in legal education, it never gets a chance. Bankruptcy laws and the federal student loan program insulate law schools from accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

Waiting to “see what happens” became a triumph of hope over reality. For the Thomas Jefferson class of 2013, the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate nine months after graduation was 29 percent. For the class of 2014, it was 30 percent. Even with an additional month for the class of 2015 to find jobs, the ten-month FTLT-JD-required employment rate was 24 percent. But the school did win that nagging fraud case brought by a recent graduate.

In April 2015, Solomon’s column on legal education and the profession was so riddled with errors that I climbed out of a hospital bed to write a responsive post culminating in this question, “Whatever happened to The New York Times fact-checker?”

Almost There

With all of that carnage in the rearview mirror, Professor Solomon’s June 21 article assumes a more moderate tone. Most importantly, he acknowledges the different legal education markets that exist for new graduates: “[I]t is clear that it is harder out there for the lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

Noting that some big firms announced starting salary increases to $180,000 for the class of 2016, he cautions, “Only the lucky 17 percent of graduates earn salaries this high. To be in this group, you needed to go to a top 10 school or graduate in the higher ranks of the top quartile of law schools. Things are harder for every other law graduate.”

Solomon also accepts the bimodal distribution of starting salaries that results from the different markets for law graduates: “[W]hile 17 percent of graduates earned median salary of $160,000 in 2014, about half had a median starting salary of $40,000 to $65,000.”

The article could and should have ended with this: “Either way, it is clear that it is harder out there for lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

In Defense of Fellow Professors?

Four days before Solomon’s article, Noam Scheiber’s Times piece profiled once-hopeful students at Valparaiso University School of Law. They’d incurred massive debt for a JD degree, but couldn’t find jobs requiring one. Scheiber also quoted a professor who recently headed the school’s admissions committee: “If we could go back, I think we should have erred a little more on the side of turning people down.”

Immediately after the publication of Scheiber’s article, social media took over when a law professor complained in an open letter to Scheiber: “Have you seen this line of peer-reviewed research, which estimates the boost to earning from a law degree including the substantial proportion of law graduates who do not practice law?”

The cited “line of peer-reviewed research” consisted of one study, co-authored by that professor in 2013. When Scheiber invited the professor to identify any factual errors in his article, the professor provided six alleged mistakes. For anyone interested in diving into those weeds, Scheiber posted the six items and his response on his Facebook page, including this:

“It’s not worth reviewing the controversy about your work on law graduate earnings here, since the criticisms are well-established. But suffice it to say, I think it’s strange to respond to a claim that the economic prospects of people graduating after the recession have fundamentally changed relative to those who graduated before the recession with a study that only includes people who graduated prior to 2009.”

(UPDATE: On Friday, June 24, the professor responded to Scheiber’s response.)

Among the many other criticisms to which Scheiber refers is the 2013 study’s failure to consider differences among law schools in their graduates’ incomes. In other words, it ignored the actual law school markets.

Nearing the Finish Line

Professor Solomon’s latest article centers on the importance of recognizing those different markets. But he still cites the 2013 study for the proposition that “most law students earned a premium of hundreds of thousands of dollars over what they would have earned had they not gone to law school, even taking into account the debt they accrue.”

Even so, Solomon’s slow walk away from the 2013 study improves on his April 2015 column. There, he relied on it to suggest that an “acceleration in compensation results in a premium of $1 million for lawyers over their lifetime compared with those who did not go to law school.” Now he’s down to “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for “most law students.”

Professor Solomon teaches at a top school, UC-Berkeley. He knows that plenty of students at other schools have a tough road ahead. Solomon no longer refers to an overly broad $1 million lifetime premium. He has also added a qualifier (“most law students” — meaning a mere 51 percent) — to whatever he thinks the study proves about the economic benefit of a JD. In other words, he has rendered the 2013 study meaningless to anyone considering law school today.

So why does Professor Solomon continue to cite the study at all? Better not to ask. Accept progress wherever you find it.