The Most Unfortunate Comment Award to Date

The words seem so innocuous — “federally guaranteed student loans.” But what do they mean when someone actually defaults and the government has to make good on its guarantee? A recent article in The New York Times provides the answer.

A brief review of the business model

This post is the latest in what became my unintended series on the law school business model. It began with The Wall Street Journal’s misrepresentation in a lead op-ed piece. The Journal claimed that Congress made student loans non-dischargeable in 1976 because of widespread abuse. That is, graduates benefited from government loans and then declared bankruptcy on the eve of lucrative careers to avoid their debt. There’s no delicate way to put this: The WSJ was perpetuating a thirty-five-year-old myth.

Then I considered law schools that offer tuition discounts in the form of merit scholarships. There’s no mystery there: a secretive process of awarding money facilitates an individualized approach to pricing that maximizes tuition revenues while enhancing a school’s U.S. News ranking.

Most recently, I turned to yet another element of the current law school business model: raising the list price of tuition while reserving the flexibility to move lower as needed to attract particular candidates.

Follow the money

Now consider the source of all that tuition money. Some people are able to pay their own way, regardless of the cost. But they’re in the minority. Matt Leichter reports that the 44,000 law graduates in the class of 2010 took on $3.6 billion in debt, up sharply from $3.1 billion only two years earlier. The number is climbing as tuition goes up.

The chances that recent graduates will secure a job requiring a law degree are about 50-50. Although others will get non-legal jobs that pay reasonably well, the ranks of new lawyers with loans they can’t afford to repay is growing.

So what?

Students now have an income-based repayment (IBR) option for federal loans; that may afford some relief. But as Professor William Henderson explains in “The Law School Tuition Bubble,” two problems arise. First, dedicating fifteen percent of income for the requisite twenty-five years of a total IBR plan is akin to a permanent tax on the already low incomes of those lawyers. Forget about saving for retirement or funding their own kids’ higher education.

Second, those IBR participants who make it all the way to the end of the twenty-five years will have their remaining loan balances forgiven. That will add more debt that that the federal treasury will bear — for anyone who worries about such things.

Default

For recent graduates with limited job prospects, IBR is better than nothing. But some will default on their loans, just as their predecessors have. This poses no problem for law schools; they’ve already collected their tuition money and don’t have to return it.

Default poses no problem for lenders, either. That’s because educational debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, except in rare cases that satisfy the “undue hardship” requirement.

Moreover, the federal guarantee kicks in for private lenders, at which point the government foots the bill. But that’s not the end of the story. As the Times article explains, the newest growth industry is student loan debt collection. Last year, the government paid more than $1.4 billion to debt collection organizations it hired to track down student defaulters.

A Most Unfortunate Comment

For anyone who doubts that this is unapologetic intergenerational exploitation of the young by the old, consider these comments from Jerry Ashton, a consultant for the debt collection industry and the winner of the most Unfortunate Comment Award to date:

“As I wandered around the crowd of NYU students at their rally protesting student debt at the end of February [2011], I couldn’t believe the accumulated wealth they represented – for our industry. It was lip-smacking.”

Ashton included a photograph of several students to which he added these details: “a girl wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the fine sum of $90,000, another with $65,000, a third with $20,000 and over there a really attractive $120,000 was printed on another shirt.”

Someday this will all come crashing down. I fear that people like Ashton — and merger/acquisitions specialist Mark Russell, who described student loans as the debt collection industry’s “new oil well” — will make money on that event. too. Shame on them. Shame on all of us.

OCCUPY BIG LAW

The encampments are gone, but Occupy Wall Street leaves behind a slogan that should make any history student shudder and some big law leaders squirm:

“We’re the 99-percenters.”

It’s not a leftist fringe rant. During a recent Commonwealth Club of California appearance, presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer said that, if becoming President turned on the answer to a single question, he’d pose this one to every candidate:

“What are you going to do about the growing disparity of wealth in the United States of America?”

Once-great civilizations collapsed under such weight. A similar internal phenomenon is quietly weakening some mighty law firms.

Destabilizing trends

“Don’t redistribute wealth — that’s class warfare” has become a popular rhetorical rallying cry. (See, for example, the Wall Street Journal‘s lead editorials on December 2  and 7.) But a stealth class war has already produced massive economic redistribution — from the 99-percenters to the one-percenters.

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz writes in Vanity Fair that the top one percent control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth — up from 33 percent 25 years ago. In a recent interview, Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University notes: “[In America], wealth is two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave and farmer society. That’s how huge the gap is.”

Both Winters and Stiglitz suggest that today’s oligarchs use wealth to preserve power. One effective tactic is to encourage the pursuit of dreams that, for most 99-percenters, are largely illusory. My favorite New Yorker cartoon is a bar scene with a scruffy man in a T-shirt telling a well-dressed fellow patron: “As a potential lottery winner, I totally support tax cuts for the wealthy.”

For today’s young attorneys, one largely illusory dream has become the brass ring of a big firm equity partnership atop the leveraged pyramid.

Big law winners

So far, wealthy lawyers have avoided public outrage. But between 1979 and 2005, the top one percent of attorneys doubled their share of America’s income — from 0.61 to 1.22 percent. For the Am Law 50, average equity partner profits soared from $300,000 in 1985 ($630,000 in today’s dollars) to $1.5 million in 2010.

Even so, the really big gap — in society and within large law firms — is inside the ranks of the privileged, and it has been growing. By one estimate, the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans captured half of all gains going to the top one percent. Similarly, management consultant Kristin Stark of Hildebrandt Baker Robbins observes that before the recession, the top-to-bottom ratio within equity partnerships “was typically five-to-one in many firms. Very often today, we’re seeing that spread at 10-to-1, even 12-to-1.”

So what?

Meritocracies are vital and valuable, but for nations as well as for institutions, extreme income inequality reveals something about the culture that produces it. A recent study found that only three nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — Chile, Mexico and Turkey — have greater income inequality than America. Perhaps it’s coincidental, but all OECD countries with less inequality — including Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, Austria, and Britain — likewise surpass the U.S. in almost every quality of life measure.

In big law, exploding inequality is one symptom of a profound ailment: The myopic focus on short-term compensation metrics that reward bad behavior — hoarding clients, demanding more billables, raising leverage ratios. As the prevailing model creates stunning wealth for a few, it encourages attitudes that poison working environments and diminish the profession.

Unlike imperial Rome, today’s large firms won’t fall prey to Huns and Vandals. Rather, modern casualties include mentoring, training, collegiality, community, loyalty, and building institutional connections between clients and young lawyers. Those characteristics once defined the very concept of professional partnership. Today’s business of law makes precious little room for them. Clients who think that these relatively new trends aren’t compromising the quality and cost of their legal services are kidding themselves.

A meaningful Occupy Big Law movement would require that: 1) clients (and courts approving attorneys’ fees petitions) finally say, “Enough!” and 2) would-be protesters stop viewing themselves as future equity partner lottery winners. Meanwhile, senior partners need not worry about disaffected lawyers and staff taking to the streets.

After all, there’s no way to bill that time.

BONUS TIME — AND ANOTHER UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Above the Law’s David Lat wins my Unfortunate Comment Award with this assessment of Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s recent 2011 bonus announcement:

“My own take: these amounts — which are the same as the 2010 and 2009 bonus scales at CSM, except for the most-senior associates — are fair. The past three years — 2009, 2010, and 2011 — have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing. To the extent that firms are treading water a bit, it’s reasonable for them to keep associate compensation at the same levels.”

“Treading water a bit”?

Let’s start with the suggestion that “the past three years have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing.” According to The American Lawyer, Cravath’s 2008 average equity partner profits were $2.5 million — admittedly a sharp decline from 2007. But it’s still pretty good and, since then, equity partner profit trees have resumed their growth to the sky.

As the economy struggled, Cravath’s average partner profits increased to $2.7 million in 2009 and to $3.17 million in 2010, according to the Am Law 100 surveys. That’s not “treading water.” It’s returning to 2007 profit levels — the height of “amazing” boom years that most observers had declared gone forever. Watch for 2011 profits to be even higher.

It’s fair [and] reasonable to keep associate compensation at the same levels as 2009 and 2010″

If Lat’s comparative baseline is the American labor force generally, his view of fairness has superficial appeal. To most people, Cravath’s bonuses atop base salaries starting at $160,000 are impressive — ranging from $7,500 (first-year associates) to $37,500 (seventh-year associates). Couple those numbers with big firm partner complaints that law schools fail to train lawyers for tasks in the big law world and perhaps associates should consider themselves fortunate that they’re not being asked to rebate a portion of their pay for the privilege billing long hours.

(There are problems with current legal education in America, but the critique that graduates aren’t prepared for big law practice misses several key points, including: Eighty-five percent of lawyers will never have big firm jobs, the vast majority of those who do won’t keep them for more than a few years, and most of the remaining survivors will find their careers surprisingly unsatisfying. For more, take a look at “A New Law School Mission.”)

But I digress. For now, the question is fairness. In law firms, it’s a relative concept — a point that causes Lat’s analysis to miss the mark badly.

As Cravath’s 2010 average equity partner profits have been returning to their 2007 high-water mark, compare them to associate bonuses, which haven’t:

Associate bonus after first full year

2007: $35,000, special $10,000

2011: $7,500

Second-year

2007: $40,000, special $15,000

2011: $10,000

Third-year

2007: $45,000, special $20,000

2011: $15,000

Fourth-year

2007: $50,000, special $30,000

2011: $20,000

Fifth-year

2007: $55,000, special $40,000

2011: $25,000

Sixth-year

2007: $60,000, special $50,000

2011: $30,000

Seventh-year

2007: $60,000, special $50,000

2011: $37,500

Earlier this year, Sullivan & Cromwell offered spring associate bonuses for 2010 ranging from $2,500 (first-year) to $20,000 (seventh-year). Cravath and others then followed suit. Even if that happens again this year, recent classes will still be far worse off than their 2007-era predecessors.

Meanwhile, law school tuition has continued to rise, so the newest associates have the biggest educational loans to repay. In the current buyer’s market for young attorneys, that’s more good news for big firms. Their associates — whose average billables are back over 2,000 hours again — won’t be going anywhere. Unless, of course, the staggering attrition rates needed to sustain the leveraged big law pyramid push them out the door. Viewed as an integrated system, the prevailing model functions effectively to produce and exploit an oversupply of lawyers.

Most big firms will follow Cravath’s lead. But they can afford to do better — a lot better — and they should. As associate bonuses have stagnated, the overall average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 have returned to pre-recession levels — reaching almost $1.4 million in 2010.

How much is enough? More, apparently. According to the latest survey of Am Law 200 firm leaders currently appearing in the The American Lawyer, managing partners expect the upward profits trend to continue. Keeping the lid on associate compensation is a key to that strategy. It hasn’t been a great ride for the non-lawyer support staff, either.

Now you know why my next post will be titled, “Occupy Big Law.” I’m not kidding.