THINKING BEYOND THE AM LAW 100 RANKINGS

It’s Am Law 100 time. Every year as May 1 approaches, all eyes turn to Big Law’s definitive rankings — The American Lawyer equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But behind those numbers, what do law firm leaders think about their institutions and fellow partners?

The 2015 Citibank/Hildebrandt Client Advisory contains some interesting answers to that question. Media summaries of those annual survey results tend to focus on macro trends and numbers. Will demand for legal services increase in the coming months? Are billable hours up? Will equity partner profits continue to rise? Will clients accept hourly rate increases? Or will client discounts reduce realizations?

Those are important topics, but some of the survey’s best nuggets deserve more attention than they get. So as big law firm partners everywhere pore over the annual Am Law 100 numbers, here are five buried treasures from this year’s Citibank/Hildebrandt Client Advisory that will get lost in the obsession over Am Law’s short-term growth and profits metrics. They may reveal more about the state of Big Law than any ranking system can.

Chickens Come Home To Roost

1. “While excess capacity remains an issue, we are hearing from a good number of firms that mid-level associates are in short supply.”

My comment: After 2009, most firms reduced dramatically summer programs and new associate hiring to preserve short-term equity partner profits. That was a shortsighted failure to invest in the future, and it’s still pervasive. See #4 and #5 below.

The Growth Trap

2. “Many [law firm mergers] have tended to be mergers of strong firms with weaker firms, or mergers of firms that are pursuing growth for growth’s sake. On this latter trend, it is our view that these mergers are generally ill-conceived. In our experience, combining separate firm revenues does not necessarily translate into better profit results and long-term success.”

My comment: Regardless of who says it (or how often), many managing partners just don’t believe it.

The Lateral Hiring Ruse

3. “For all the popularity of growth through laterals, the success rate of a firm’s lateral strategy can be quite low. For the past few years, we have asked leaders of large firms to quantify the rate of success of the laterals they hired over the past five years. Each year, the proportion of laterals who they would describe as being above ‘break even’, by their own definition, has fallen. In 2014, the number was just 54 percent of laterals who had joined their firms during 2009-2013.” [Emphasis added]

My comment: Think about that one. The survey allows managing partners to use their own personal, subjective, and undisclosed definition of “success.” Even with that unrestricted discretion to make themselves look good, firm leaders still admit that almost half of their lateral hiring decisions over the past five years have been failures — and that they’re track record has been getting worse! That’s stunning.

Pulling Up The Ladder

4. “We are now seeing [permanent non-partner track associates and other lower cost lawyers] appear among some of the most elite firms. When we ask these firms whether they are concerned that expanding their lawyer base beyond partner-track associates will hurt their brand, their response is simply that this is what their clients, and the market in general demands.”

My comment: At best such managing partner responses are disingenuous; at worst they are lies. Clients aren’t demanding non-partner track attorneys; they’re demanding more value from their outside lawyers. Thoughtful clients understand the importance of motivating the next generation’s best and brightest lawyers with meaningful long-term career opportunities.

Permanent dead-end tracks undermine that objective. So does the continuing trend in many firms to increase overall attorney headcount while keeping the total number of equity partners flat or declining. But rather than accept responsibility for the underlying greed that continues to propel equity partner profits higher, law firm leaders try to blame clients and “the market.” For the truth, they should consult a mirror.

The Real Problem

5. “Leaders of successful firms also talk about getting their partners to adopt a more long-term, ‘investment’ mindset. In an industry where the profits are typically paid out in a short time to partners, rather than being retained for longer term investment, this can be a challenge.”

My comment: Thinking beyond current year profits is the challenge facing the leadership of every big firm. Succeeding at that mission is also the key assumption underlying the Client Advisory’s optimistic conclusion:

“It is clear to us that law firms have the capacity and the talent to adapt to the needs of their clients, and meet the challenges of the future — contrary to those who continually forecast their death.”

I’m not among those forecasting the death of all big firms. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is. That would be silly. But as in 2013 and 2014, some large firms will fail or disappear into “survival mergers.” As that happens, everyone will see that having what the Client Advisory describes as “the capacity and talent to adapt” to the profession’s dramatic transformation is not the same as actually adapting. The difference will separate the winners from the losers.

THE BINGHAM CASE STUDY: PART II

Starting with the introduction, Harvard Law Professor Ashish Nanda’s case study on Bingham McCutchen depicts Jay Zimmerman as the architect of the firm’s evolution “from a ‘middle-of-the-road-downtown-pack’ Boston law firm in the early 1990s to a preeminent international law firm by 2010”:

“Zimmerman was elected chairman in 1994. Over the next 15 years, he shepherded the firm through 10 mergers, or ‘combinations’ in the Bingham lexicon, the establishment of 11 new offices, and a ten-fold increase in the firm’s revenues to $800 million… Given its impressive expansion, [journalist Jeffrey] Klineman said, ‘Bingham McCutchen has shown it could probably open an office on the moon.'” (p. 1)

Harvard published the study in September 2011.

Another Case Study

Ten months later, Nanda released another case study, “The Demise of Howrey” — a firm that was dying as he considered Bingham. Interestingly, several footnotes in the Howrey study refer to articles explaining how aggressive inorganic growth compromised that firm’s cohesiveness and hastened its collapse. (E.g., “Howrey’s Lessons” by me, ““Why Howrey Law Firm Could Not Hold It Together”, by the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein, and “The Fall of Howrey,” by the American Lawyer’s Julie Triedman) But Nanda’s 15-page narrative of Howrey barely mentions that topic.

Instead, he invites consideration of “the alternative paths Howrey, and managing partner Robert Ruyak, might have taken to avoid dissolution of the firm” after that growth had occurred. The abstract concludes with these suggested discussion points:

“What could Howrey have done differently as clients demanded contingency payment plans and deep discounts? Should Ruyak have been more transparent about the financial difficulties the firm faced? Should he have consulted with a group of senior partners instead of relying on the counsel of outside consultants? Is a litigation-focused firm at a disadvantage when it comes to leadership, as compared to a corporate practice? Participants will reflect on the leadership structure of Howrey while discussing issues related to crisis management.”

With all due respect, those inquiries don’t reach a key lesson of Howrey’s (and now Bingham’s) collapse. The following sentence in the study does, but it goes unexplored:

“Howrey continued to add laterals over the concerns of some partners that increased lateral expansion might detract from the firm’s strategic focus and weaken its cultural glue.” (p. 6)

The Metrics Trap

Nanda’s case studies report that at Howrey. as at Bingham, a few key metrics suggested short-term success: revenues soared, equity partner profits increased, and Am Law rankings went up. But beneath those superficially appealing trends was a long-term danger that such metrics didn’t capture: institutional instability. When Howrey’s projected average partner profits dipped to $850,000 in 2009, many ran for the exits and the death spiral accelerated.

Likewise, Bingham’s record high equity partner profits in 2012 of $1.7 million dropped by 13 percent — far less than Howrey’s 2009 decline of 35 percent — to $1.5 million in 2013. But a steady stream of partner departures led to destabilization and a speedy end.

Balancing the Presentation

According to the final sentence of the Bingham case study abstract, “The case allows participants to explore the positives and negatives of following a strategy of inorganic growth in professional service firms….”

The negatives now dwarf the positives. No one should fault Nanda for failing to predict Bingham’s collapse two years later. The most spectacular law firm failures have come as surprises, even to many insiders at such firms. But the Bingham study emphasizes how Zimmerman conquered the challenges of an aggressive growth strategy, with little consideration to whether the overall strategy itself was wise over the long run.

For example:

— The study notes that after Bingham’s 2002 merger with 300-attorney McCutchen Doyle, “Cultural differences…loomed over the combined organization….” But the study goes on to observe, “[T]hese issues did not slow the firm’s growth on the West Coast.” (p. 11) By 2006, “Bingham had achieved remarkable success and unprecedented growth.” (p. 14)

— The study reports that the firm’s American Lawyer associate satisfaction ranking improved from 107 in 2007 to 79 in 2008, which Bingham’s chief human resources officer attributed to “an appreciation for the leadership of the firm. People have confidence in Jay’s competence.” (p. 17). The study doesn’t mention that the firm’s associate satisfaction ranking dropped to 100 in 2009 and to 106 (out of 137) in 2010. (American Lawyer, Sept. 2010, p. 78)

— “Our management committee has people from all over,” the study quotes Zimmerman. “You don’t have to have been at Bingham Dana forever to lead at the firm.” (p. 15) But the study doesn’t consider how too many laterals parachuting into the top of a firm can produce a concentration of power and a problematic distribution of partner compensation. When Bingham began to unravel, the spread between its highest and lowest paid partners was 12:1.

— Bingham’s final acquisition — McKee Nelson — was the largest law firm combination of 2009. The study doesn’t discuss the destructive impact of accompanying multi-year compensation guarantees that put some McKee Nelson partners at the very top of the Bingham McCutchen pay scale. To be fair, Nanda probably didn’t know about the guarantees, but the omission reveals the limitations of his investigation. The guarantees came to light publicly when the American Lawyer spoke recently with former partners who said that “the size and scope of the McKee Nelson guarantees led to internal fissures…that caused at least some partners to leave the firm.”

No Regrets

Looking to the future, Zimmerman told the Harvard researchers, “[W]e’re competing with the best every day. We know we are among the best.” (p. 19)

I wonder if he would now offer the same self-assessment of his leadership that Robert Ruyak provided to the American Lawyer at the time of Howrey’s bankruptcy, namely, “I don’t have any regrets.” Nanda’s case study on Howrey’s demise concludes with “Ruyak’s Reflections.” The “no regrets” line could lead to interesting classroom discussions about accepting responsibility, but it doesn’t appear in the Howrey study. Ruyak’s explanations for the firm’s failure do.

One explanation that receives no serious attention in the case study is Ruyak’s observation that the partnership lacked patience and loyalty to the firm: “The longer-term Howrey people realized that our profitability jumped around a bit,” he said. “The people who were laterals, maybe, did not.” (p. 15)

Perhaps the potential for institutional instability that can accompany aggressive inorganic law firm growth receives greater emphasis in classroom discussions of Howrey and Bingham than it does in Nanda’s written materials. In that respect, both firms are case studies in management failure that is regrettably pervasive: a wrongheaded vision of success and a reliance on misguided metrics by which to measure it.

LAW & FOOTBALL: RANKINGS DOUBLETHINK

For many people, the holiday season means an intense focus on college football. This year, a 12-person committee develops weekly team rankings. They will culminate in playoffs that produce head-to-head competition for the national championship in January.

A recent comment from the chairman of that committee, Jeff Long, is reminiscent of something U.S. News rankings czar Robert Morse said about his ranking system last year. Both remarks reveal how those responsible for rankings methodology rationalize distance between themselves and the behavior they incentivize.

Nobody Wants Credit?

Explaining why undefeated Florida State dropped from second to third in the November 11 rankings, Long told ESPN that making distinctions among the top teams was difficult. He explained that the relevant factors include a team’s “body of work, their strength of schedule.” Teams that defeat other strong teams get a higher rank than those beating weaker opponents. So even though Oregon has suffered a loss this year, its three victories against top-25 opponents jumped it ahead of undefeated FSU, which had only two such wins. Long repeated his explanation on November 19: “Strength of schedule is an important factor….”

Whether Oregon should be ahead of FSU isn’t the point. Long’s response to a follow-up question on November 11 is the eye-catcher: Was the committee sending a message to teams that they should schedule games against tougher opponents?

“We don’t think it’s our job to send messages,” he said. “We believe the rankings will do that.”

But who develops the criteria underlying the rankings? Long’s committee. The logic circle is complete.

Agency Moment Lost: Students

In his November 14 column for the New York Times, David Brooks writes more broadly about “The Agency Moment.” It occurs when an individual accepts complete responsibility for his or her decisions. Some people never experience it.

Rankings can provide opportunities for agency moments. For example, some prelaw students avoid serious inquiry into an important question: which law school might be the best fit for their individual circumstances? Instead, I’ve heard undergraduates say they’ll attend the best law school that accepts them, and U.S. News rankings will make that determination.

If they were talking about choosing from law schools in different groups, that would make some sense. There’s a reason that Harvard doesn’t lose students to Boston University. But too many students take the rankings too far. If the choice is between school number 22 and the one ranked number 23, they’re picking number 22, period. That’s idiotic.

In abandoning independent judgment, such students (and their parents) cede one of life’s most important decisions to Robert Morse, the non-lawyer master of the rankings methodology. It’s also an agency moment lost.

Agency Moment Lost: Deans, Administrators, and Alumni

Likewise, deans who let U.S. News dictate their management decisions say they’re just responding to incentives. As long as university administrators, alumni, and prospective students view the rankings as meaningful, they have to act accordingly. Any complaint — and there are many — should go to the person who develops the rankings methodology.

All roads of responsibility lead back to U.S. News’ Robert Morse, they say. But following that trail leads to another lost agency moment. In March 2013, Lee Pacchia of Bloomberg asked Morse if he took any responsibility for what’s ailing legal education today:

“No…U.S. News isn’t the ABA. U.S. News doesn’t regulate the reporting requirements. No….”

Agency Moment Lost: Methodology Masters

Morse went on to say that U.S. News was not responsible for the cost of law school, either. Pacchia didn’t ask him why the methodology rewards a school that increases expenditures without regard to the beneficial impact on student experiences or employment outcomes. Or how schools game the system by aggressively recruiting transfer students whose tuition adds revenue at minimal cost and whose lower LSAT scores don’t count in the school’s ranking methodology. (Vivia Chen recently reported on the dramatic increase in incoming transfer students at some schools.)

Cassius was only half-right. The fault lies not in our stars; but it doesn’t lie anywhere else, either!

The many ways that U.S. News rankings methodology has distorted law school deans’ decision-making is the subject of Part I of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis. Part II investigates the analogous behavior of law firm leaders who rely on metrics that maximize short-term Am Law rankings in running their businesses (e.g., billings, billable hours, hourly rates, and leverage ratios).

Aggregate Rankings v. Individual Outcomes

In the end, “sending a message” through a rankings methodology is only one part of an agency equation. The message itself doesn’t require the recipient to engage in any particular behavior. That’s still a choice, although incentive structures can limit perceived options and create first-mover dilemmas.

Importantly, individual outcomes don’t always conform to rankings-based predictions. Successful participants still have to play — and win — each game. That doesn’t always happen. Just ask Mississippi State — ranked number one in the college football playoff sweepstakes after week 12, but then losing to Alabama on November 15. Or even better, look at number 18 ranked Notre Dame, losing on the same day to unranked Northwestern.

Maybe that’s the real lesson for college coaches, prelaw students, law school deans, and law firm leaders. Rather than rely on rankings and pander to the methodology behind them, focus on winning the game.

WHO REALLY PAYS FOR LAW STUDENT DEBT?

More public interest lawyers for our nation’s underserved citizens would be a good thing. More public debt to subsidize law schools that shouldn’t exist at all would be a bad thing.

In recent years, law schools have promoted debt forgiveness programs as a solution to rising student loan obligations. In some important ways, they are. Income-based repayment (IBR) can be a lifeline in a drowning pool of educational debt. It can also open up less remunerative options, including public interest law, for those willing to forego big bucks to avoid big law firms. But now everyone seems surprised to realize that, when all that debt is forgiven years hence, someone will have to pick up the tab.

Well, not quite everyone is surprised. More than two years ago, Professor WIlliam Henderson, one of the profession’s leading observers, saw this train wreck coming. “Unless the government’s actuarial assumptions on student loan repayments turn out to be correct,” Henderson wrote, “federal funding of higher education is on a collision course with the federal deficit.”

Tuition increases without regard to value added

Recently, the Wall Street Journal made that collision a front page story. In “Plans That Forgive Student Debt Skyrocket,” law students took center stage — and for good reason. For a decade, new lawyers have outpaced everyone, even medical students, in the rate at which they have accumulated educational debt.

Am Law columnist Matt Leichter has reported that from 1998 to 2008, private law school tuition grew at an annual rate of almost 3.5 percent, compared to 1.89 percent for medical schools and 2.85 percent for undergraduate colleges. Public law school tuition increased at an even faster pace: 6.71 percent. From 2008 to 2012, median law school debt for new graduates increased by 54 percent — from $83,000 to $128,000. (That compares to a 22 percent increase in medical student debt.)

Market disconnects

What accounts for the law school tuition explosion? For starters, the U.S. News rankings methodology incentivizes deans and administrators to spend money without regard to the beneficial impact on a student’s education. More expenditures per student mean a higher ranking, period.

Who provides that money? Students — most of whom obtain federally backed loans. To that end, the prevailing law school business model requires filling classrooms. As transparency about dismal law graduate employment outcomes has produced fewer applications at most schools, deans generally have responded by increasing acceptance rates. The overall rate for all law schools rose from 56 percent in 2004 to almost 80 percent in 2013.

Sell, sell, sell

As National Law Journal reporter Karen Sloan observed recently, “It’s a tale of two legal education worlds.” Top law schools place 90 percent of their graduates; but “more than three-quarters of ABA accredited law schools — 163 — had underemployment rates of 20 percent or more.”

Those numbers begin to explain what has now become an annual springtime ritual. As I’ve discussed in recent posts, many law school professors and deans at schools producing those underemployed graduates are proclaiming that the lawyer glut is over. Now, they say, is the best time ever to attend law school.

Outside the ivory tower, practicing lawyers know that such hopeful rhetoric isn’t transforming the market or slowing the profession’s structural changes. Last June, NALP Executive Director James Leipold wrote, “There are no indications that the employment situation will return to anything like it was before the recession.”

The most recent ABA employment statistics for the class of 2013 prove Leipold’s point: Nine months after graduation, only 57 percent had obtained long-term-full-time jobs requiring a JD. Median incomes for new graduates aren’t improving much, either. For the class of 2008, it was $72,000; for the class of 2012, it was $61,245.

IBR to the rescue

The vast majority of students borrow six-figure sums to fund their legal education. The federal government backs the loans, which survive bankruptcy. The end result is law schools with no financial skin in a game for which they reap tremendous economic rewards.

IBR is a godsend to many new lawyers who can’t get jobs that pay enough to cover their loans. It permits monthly installments totaling 10 percent of discretionary income (defined as annual income above 150 percent of the poverty level). Outstanding balances are forgiven after 10 years; for private sector workers, it’s 20 years.

Less obvious consequences

IBR has a dark side, too. If a person leaves the program early, total debt will include all accrued interest and principal, often creating a balance larger than the original loans. For those remaining in the program for the requisite 10 or 20 years, forgiven debt becomes taxable income in the year forgiven.

More insidiously for the profession, IBR allows marginal schools to exploit an already dysfunctional market. Such schools are free to ignore the realistic job prospects for their graduates (including JD-required public service positions) as they recruit new students who obtain six-figure loans to pay tuition. When graduates can’t get decent jobs, it’s not the school’s problem. Meanwhile, IBR becomes the underemployed young lawyer’s escape hatch.

The Wall Street Journal reports that graduates are using that hatch in dramatically increasing numbers: “[E]nrollment in the [IBR] plans has surged nearly 40% in just six months, to include at least 1.3 million Americans owing around $72 billion.” Those figures aren’t limited to lawyers, but they undoubtedly include many young graduates from law schools that should have closed long ago.

Bill Henderson probably finds some measure of vindication as a wider audience now frets over a problem that he foresaw years ago. But I know him well enough to believe that for him, like me, four of the least satisfying words in the English language are: “I told you so.”

THE END OF THE LAWYER GLUT?

Could a years-long oversupply of new attorneys finally be on the wane? Based on the trend of recent headlines, it would be easy to reach that conclusion. For example, a December 2013 Wall Street Journal headline read: “First-Year Law School Enrollment at 1977 Levels.” The first sentence of the article described the “plunge” in entering law student enrollments.

Likewise, in January 2014, National Jurist reported on steep enrollment declines at particular schools from 2010 to 2013. The big losers in that compilation were “the University of LaVerne (down 66.2 percent) and Thomas M. Cooley Law School (down 40.6 percent).”

Most recently, the National Law Journal took a closer look at the 13 law schools that saw “1L enrollment drop by 30 percent or more in the span of 12 months, while an additional 27 reported declines of 20 to 30 percent in all.”

Taken together, these reports create an impression that the severe lawyer glut is ending.

How about a job?

For prospective law students, the size of any drop in overall enrollment isn’t relevant; employment prospects upon graduation from a particular school are. According to the ABA, just under 40,000 students began law school in the fall of 2013 — down eight percent from the entering class of 2012. That’s significant, but not all that dramatic.

Meanwhile, for the entire decade ending in 2022, the latest estimate (December 2013) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the total number available positions for “Lawyers, judges, and related workers” at around 200,000. That net number takes into account deaths, retirements, and other departures from the profession. More sobering, it’s yet another downward revision from earlier BLS projections.

As the profession makes room for 20,000 new attorneys a year, why all the media attention about 1L enrollments “plunging” to a level that is still almost twice that number?

I think the answer is that some law professors are running around screaming that their hair is on fire because, for many of them, it is. The media are covering that blaze, but the larger conflagration surrounding the crisis in legal education somehow gets lost.

U.S. News to the rescue?

Professor Jerry Organ at the University of St. Thomas School of Law has an interesting analysis of the situation. Schools in trouble are “picking their poison.” One option is to maintain admission standards that preserve LSAT and GPA profiles of their entering classes. Alternatively, they can sacrifice those standards in an effort to fill their classrooms and maximization tuition revenues.

U.S. News & World Report rankings now have an ironic role in this mess. For decades, rankings have contributed to perverse behavioral incentives that have not served law schools, students, or the profession. For example, in search of students with higher LSATs that would improve a ranking, many schools diverted need-based financial aid to so-called “merit scholarships” for those with better test scores.

Likewise, revenue generation also became important in the U.S. News calculus. As the ABA Task Force Report on the Future of Legal Education notes, the ranking formulas don’t measure “programmatic quality or value” and, to that extent, “may provide misleading information to students and consumers.” They also reward “increasing a school’s expenditures for the purpose of affecting ranking, without reference to impact on value delivered or educational outcomes.”

Now the rankings methodology has presented many schools with a Hobson’s choice: If they preserve LSAT/GPA profiles of their entering classes, they will suffer a reduction in current tuition dollars as class size shrinks; if they admit less qualified applicants, they’ll preserve tuition revenues for a while, but they’ll suffer a rankings decline that will hasten their downward slide by deterring applicants for the subsequent year.

As some schools become increasingly desperate, they will be tempted to recruit those who are most vulnerable to cynical rhetoric about illusory prospects on graduation. The incentive for such mischief is obvious: However unqualified such students might be for the profession, the six-figure loans they need to finance a legal education are available with the stroke of a pen. Revenue problem solved.

Some law professors argue that the trend of recent declines in enrollment is sufficient to create a shortfall in law school graduates by 2015. Maybe they’re right. Time will tell — and not much time at that.

I think it’s more likely that over the next decade, a lot of law professors will find themselves looking for work outside academia. Meanwhile, their best hope could be to run out the student loan program clock long enough for them to retire. Then it all becomes someone else’s problem.

HOW THE LAWYER BUBBLE GROWS

In June, the legal services sector lost more than 3,000 jobs. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the sector has gained only 1,000 net jobs since June 2012. In the last two months, 6,000 positions disappeared.

No market solutions here

In a properly functioning market, reduced demand would prompt suppliers to cut output in search of equilibrium. But the legal profession consists of several distinct and dysfunctional markets.

For example, there’s plenty of unmet demand for lawyers from people who can’t afford them. Reduced federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation has exacerbated that problem. So has the rising cost of law school tuition and resulting student debt. Over the past 25 years, tuition increases for law school have far outpaced the rest of higher education.

In another segment of the legal market, demand for corporate legal work has been flat for years. But law schools business models generally have focused on filling classrooms, regardless of whether students will ever be able to repay their six-figure educational loans. Because most tuition revenue comes from federally guaranteed loans that survive bankruptcy, schools have no financial incentive to restrict enrollments — that is, until they run out of applicants.

When might that happen? Not soon enough, although recent headlines imply otherwise.

High-profile reductions in class size

Some schools have reduced the size of their entering classes. For example, the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law announced that it is reducing enrollment from the current 1,000 to about 600 — an impressive 40 percent drop.

But as Dan Filler observed at the Faculty Lounge, the reality may be less impressive. Although McGeorge graduated 300 new lawyers annually from 2010 through 2012, its first-year enrollment hasn’t kept pace with those numbers. In 2012, the school had 248 (day and evening) first-year students. In 2011, it had 215. A normalized class enrollment of 200 would be a 20 percent reduction from recent levels. That’s positive, but as explained below, not nearly enough.

About those declining applications

recent Wall Street Journal article about the “plunge” in law school enrollments noted that “applications for the entering class of 2013 were down 36 percent compared with the same point in 2010…” But a more relevant statistic should be more jarring: “Law school first-year enrollments fell 8.5 percent nationwide.”

Here’s another way to look at it: For the fall of 2004 entering class, law schools admitted 55,900 of 98,700 applicants — or about 57 percent. For the fall of 2012 class, law schools admitted 50,600 of 68,000 applicants — almost 75 percent.

About those jobs

The increase in the percentage of admitted applicants is one reason that the lawyer bubble is still growing. Another is the stagnant job market. In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 98,500 net additional attorney positions for the entire decade ending in 2018. In 2010, it revised that estimate downward to project 73,600 net additional positions by the end of 2020.

Even allowing for attrition by retirement, death and otherwise, the BLS now estimates that there will be 235,000 openings for lawyers, judges, and related workers through 2020 — 23,500 a year. Last year alone, law schools graduated 46,000 new attorneys.

If law schools as a group reduced enrollments by 20 percent from last year’s graduating class, they would still produce almost 37,000 new lawyers annually — 370,000 for a decade requiring only 235,000 — not to mention the current backlog that began accumulating even before the Great Recession began.

One more thing

Which takes us back to the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. According to its ABA submission, only 42 percent of its class of 2012 graduates found full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. Even if the school caps entering classes at 200, its resulting placement rate would rise to only 64 percent.

U.S. News rankings considerations loom large in all of this. Law schools fear that reducing LSAT/GPA admission standards would hurt their rankings. In that respect, McGeorge’s class size announcement overshadowed a more unpleasant disclosure that new ABA rules now require: scholarship retention rates.

Many law schools try to enhance their U.S. News rankings by offering entering students with high LSATs so-called merit scholarships. But those scholarships sometimes disappear for years two and three. According to Prof. Jerry Organ’s analysis, only 42 percent of students entering McGeorge in the fall of 2011 kept their first-year scholarships. Eleven schools (out of 140 that offered conditional scholarships) did worse.

The overall picture is ugly. Some schools are laying off faculty and staff to counter the financial impact of reduced enrollments. But they’re also keeping tuition high and spending money on LSAT-enhancing scholarships that disappear after the first year, presumably to be replaced with non-dischargeable loans. Meanwhile, almost all of today’s students are incurring staggering educational debt, but many of them won’t find jobs sufficient to repay it.

That’s not a march toward market equilibrium. It’s a growing bubble.

COMMENDABLE CONDUCT AWARD

Regular readers know that I’m often critical of many law school deans. But when one of them gets it right, let’s give credit where it’s due. As the glut of new attorneys persists, the University of Kansas School of Law Dean Stephen Mazza became the latest dean to announce significant reductions in incoming class size. With that action, he has earned a “Commendable Conduct Award.”

Not the first

The University of Kansas isn’t the first to implement such cuts. Last year, Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings School of Law announced a 20 percent reduction in class size for the fall of 2012.

“The critics of legal education are right,” Wu said. “There are far too many law schools and there are too many law students and we need to do something about that.”

George Washington University, Albany Law School, Creighton University School of Law, and Loyola University Chicago School of Law have reduced entering class size, too. In March, Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel Rodriguez said his school would reduce the fall 2013 class by 10 percent. “We can’t ignore the destabilizing forces that the legal industry is facing today,” he said.

KU deserves special praise

All of these efforts to reduce the size of entering classes are commendable. But there are several unique aspects to the University of Kansas announcement that make it especially noteworthy.

First, the reduction as a percentage of enrollment in prior years is large: from 175 students graduating this year to a target of 120 students for the 2013 entering class and for the foreseeable future.

Equally significant, it appears that KU didn’t have to take its laudable step. The dean said that applications were down only about 10 percent — far less than many other schools. Moreover, an impressive 82 percent of 2012 graduates secured long-term jobs where a JD was required or preferred — far above the national average.

As an added bonus, a KU legal education is a relative bargain compared to many other schools: $18,600 tuition for full-time students who are state residents; $31,500 for out-of-state.

Motivations matter; outcomes matter more

Everyone expects that the decline in the number of law school applicants will produce lower average LSATs and GPAs for the entering 1L class. That, in turn, would hit the selectivity component of a school’s overall U.S. News ranking. It’s possible that some deans have reduced entering class size as part of a strategy to protect their rankings. But if the overall net outcome is that law schools as a group produce fewer lawyers three years from now, then the rankings may have helped to mitigate damage that they have caused since their first appearance in 1987.

Ay, there’s the rub. Will there be fewer total law graduates, or will other schools (and new ones in the pipeline) enroll the students that KU and others don’t accept? Indeed, will some schools expand enrollments solely to increase their tuition revenues? Asking those institutions to consider the long-term well being of the marginal students they recruit, or the sad state of the profession itself, would be asking too much, I guess.

One way to counteract the agendas of deans who refuse to do the right thing is to recognize those who do. Even more important is the task of helping prospective law students make informed decisions before they apply to law school. Over time, perhaps more of them will take advantage of increased transparency to assess realistically their own suitability for a satisfying and successful legal career. But at any age, encounters with confirmation bias are never easy.

Meanwhile, kudos to Dean Stephen Mazza and the University of Kansas School of Law. He’s been dean only since April 2011, but he’s already making a profound difference in the way that matters most — one person at a time. (And thanks to one of my regular readers who brought Dean Mazza’s announcement to my attention.)