UGLINESS INSIDE THE AM LAW 100 – PART 2

Part I of this series considered the possibility that a key metric — average partner profits — has lost much of its value in describing anything meaningful about big law firms. In eat-what-you-kill firms, the explosive growth of top-to-bottom spreads within equity partnerships has skewed the distribution of income away from the bell-shaped curve that underpins the statistical validity of any average.

Part II considers the implications.

Searching for explanations beyond the obvious

In recent years, equity partners at the top of most big firms have engineered a massive redistribution of incomes in their favor. Why? The next time a senior partner talks about holding the line on equity partner headcount or reducing entry-level partner compensation as a way to strengthen the partnership, consider the source and scrutinize the claim.

One popular assertion is that the high end of the internal equity partner income gap attracts lateral partners. In fact, some firms boast about their large spreads because they hope it will entice laterals. But Professor William Henderson’s recent analysis demonstrates that lateral hiring typically doesn’t enhance a firm’s profits. Sometimes selective lateral hiring works. But infrequent success doesn’t make aggressive and indiscriminate lateral hiring to enhance top line revenues a wise business plan.

According to Citi’s 2012 Law Firm Leaders Survey, even law firm managing partners acknowledge that, financially, almost half of all lateral hires are no better than a break-even proposition. If leaders are willing to admit that an ongoing strategy has a failure rate approaching 50 percent, imagine how bad the reality must actually be. Even worse, the non-financial implications for the acquiring firm’s culture can be devastating — but there’s no metric for assessing those untoward consequences.

A related argument is that without the high end of the range, legacy partners will leave. Firm leaders should consider resisting such threats. Even if such partners aren’t bluffing, it may be wiser to let them go.

“We’re helping young attorneys and building a future”

Other supposed benefits to recruiting rainmakers at the high end of a firm’s internal partner income distribution are the supposedly new opportunities that they can provide to younger attorneys. But the 2013 Client Advisory from Citi Private Bank-Hildebrandt Consulting shows that lateral partner hiring comes at the expense of associate promotions from within. Homegrown talent is losing the equity partner race to outsiders.

In a similar attempt to spin another current trend as beneficial to young lawyers, some managing partners assert that lower equity partner compensation levels lower the bar for admission, making equity status easier to attain. Someone under consideration for promotion can more persuasively make the business case (i.e., that potential partner’s client billings) required for equity participation.

Such sophistry assumes that an economic test makes any sense for most young partners in today’s big firms. In fact, it never did. But now the prevailing model incentivizes senior partners to hoard billings, preserve their own positions, and build client silos — just in case they someday find themselves searching for a better deal elsewhere in the overheated lateral market.

Finally, senior leaders urge that current growth strategies will better position their firms for the future. Such appealing rhetoric is difficult to reconcile with many partners’ contradictory behavior: guarding client silos, pulling up the equity partner ladder, reducing entry level partner compensation, and making it increasingly difficult for home-grown talent ever to reach the rarified profit participation levels of today’s managing partners.

Broader implications of short-term greed

In his latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Richard Susskind wrote that most law firm leaders he meets “have only a few years left to serve and hope they can hold out until retirement… Operating as managers rather than leaders, they are more focused on short-term profitability than long-term strategic health.”

Viewed through that lens, the annual Am Law 100 rankings make greed respectable while masking insidious internal equity partner compensation gaps that benefit a relatively few. Annual increases in average partner profits imply the presence of sound leadership and a firm’s financial success. But an undisclosed metric — growing internal inequality — may actually portend failure.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask lawyers from what was once Dewey & LeBoeuf and a host of other recent fatalities. Their average partner profits looked pretty good — all the way to the end.

UGLINESS INSIDE THE AM LAW 100 — PART I

Every spring, the eyes of big firm attorneys everywhere turn to the American Lawyer rankings — the Am Law 100 — and the contest surrounding its key metric: average profits per equity partner (PPP). But if the goal is to obtain meaningful insight into a firm’s culture, financial strength or profitability for most of its partners, those focusing on PPP are looking at the wrong ball.

Start with the basics

For years, firms have been increasing their PPP by reducing the number of equity partners. American Lawyer reports that cutbacks in equity partners, when done correctly, are “a solid management technique, not financial chicanery.” But as firms are now executing the strategy, it looks more like throwing furniture into the fireplace to keep the equity house warm.

Since 1985, the average leverage ratio (of all attorneys to equity partners) for the Am Law 50 has doubled from 1.76 to more than 3.5. It’s now twice as difficult to become an equity partner as it was when today’s senior partners entered that club. Between 1999 and 2009, the ranks of Am Law 100 non-equity partners grew threefold; the number of equity partners increased by less than one-third.

Arithmetic did the rest: average partner profits for the Am Law 50 soared from $300,000 in 1985 ($650,000 in today’s dollars) to more than $1.7 million in 2012.

The beat goes on

Perhaps it’s not financial chicanery, but many firms admit that they’re still turning the screws on equity partner head count as a way to increase PPP. According to the American Lawyer’s most recent Law Firm Leaders’ Survey, 45 percent of respondent firms de-equitized partners in 2012 and 46 percent planned to do so in 2013.

But even when year-to-year equity headcount remains flat, as it did this year, that nominal result masks a destabilizing trend: the growing concentration of income and power at the top. In fact, it is undermining the very validity of the PPP metric itself.

An unpublished metric more important than PPP

The internal top-to-bottom spread within the equity ranks of most firms doesn’t appear in the Am Law survey or anywhere else, but it should, along with the distribution of partners at various data points. As meaningful metrics, they’re far more important than PPP.

Even as overall leverage ratios have increased dramatically, the internal gap within equity partnerships has skyrocketed. A few firms adhere to lock-step equity partner compensation within a narrow overall range (3-to-1 or 4-to-1). But most have adopted higher spreads. In its 2012 financial statement, K&L Gates disclosed an 8-to-1 gap — up from 6-to-1 in 2011. Dewey & LeBoeuf’s range exceeded 20-to-1.

This growing internal gap undermines the informational value of PPP. In any statistical analysis, an average is meaningful if the underlying sample is distributed normally (i.e., along a bell-shaped curve where the average is the peak). But the distribution of incomes within most big firm equity partnerships bears no resemblance to such a curve.

Cultural consequences

Rules governing statistical validity have real world implications. Growing internal income spreads render even nominally stable equity partner head counts misleading. Lower minimum profit participation levels make room for more equity partner bodies, but what results over time is Dewey & LeBoeuf’s “barbell” system. A handful of rainmakers dominates one side of the barbell; many more so-called service partners populate the other — and they rarely advance very far.

As Edwin B. Reeser and Patrick J. McKenna wrote last year, in Am Law 200 firms, “Typically, two-thirds of the equity partners earn less, and some perhaps only half, of the average PPP.” Statisticians know that for such a skewed distribution, the arithmetic average conveys little that is useful about the underlying population from which it is drawn.

Why it matters

For firms that don’t have lock-step partner compensation, the PPP metric doesn’t reveal very much. For example, consider a firm with two partners and an 8-to-1 equity partner spread. If Partner A earns $4 million and Partner B earns $500,000, average PPP is $2.25 million — a number that doesn’t describe either partner’s situation or the stability of the firm itself. But the underlying details say quite a bit about the culture of that partnership.

Firms with the courage to do so would follow the lead of K&L Gates and disclose what that firm calls its “compression ratio” and then take it a step farther: reveal their internal income distributions as well. But such revelations might lead to uncomfortable conversations about why, especially during the last decade, managing partners have engineered explosive increases in internal equity partner income gaps.

A future post will consider that topic. It’s not pretty.

SOMEBODY’S CHILD

Nine years ago, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Now he wants Congress to repeal the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that deny federal recognition to such marriages. Apparently, his reversal on this issue began two years ago when his college freshman son told Portman and his wife that he was gay.

Plenty of prominent national figures have similarly changed their views. The tide of history seems overwhelming, even to conservative commentator George Will. Others can debate whether Portman and those who have announced newly acquired positions favoring gay rights are courageous, hypocrites, opportunists, or something else.

For me, the more important point is that his own child’s connection to the issue caused Portman to think differently about it. Applied to lawyers, the question become simple:

What if the profession’s influential players treated the young people pursuing a legal career as their own children?

Portman’s explanation

In 2011, Portman knew that his son was gay when 100 law graduates walked out of his commencement address at the University of Michigan.

“But you know,” he told CNN recently, “what happened to me is really personal. I mean, I hadn’t thought a lot about this issue. Again, my focus has been on other issues over my public policy career.”

His key phrases are pregnant with larger implications: “[W]hat happened to me is really personal….I hadn’t thought a lot about this issue.”

Start with law school deans

As the lawyer bubble grew over the past decade, some deans and university administrators might have behaved differently if a “really personal” dimension required them to think “a lot” about their approaches. Perhaps they would have jettisoned a myopic focus on maximizing their law school rankings and revenues.

At a minimum, most deans probably would have disclosed earlier than 2012 that fewer than half of recent graduates had long-term full-time jobs requiring a legal degree. It seems unlikely that, year after year, they would have told their own kids that those employment rates exceeded 90 percent. Perhaps, too, deans would have resisted rather than embraced skyrocketing tuition increases that have produced six-figure non-dischargeable educational debt for 85 percent of today’s youngest attorneys.

Then consider big firm senior partners

At the economic pinnacle of the profession, big firms have become a particular source of not only attorney wealth, but also career dissatisfaction. In substantial part, both phenomena happened — and continue to happen — because managing partners have obsessed over short-term metrics aimed at maximizing current year profits and mindless growth.

For example, the billable hour is the bane of every lawyer’s (and most clients’) existence, but it’s lucrative for equity partners. If senior partners found themselves pushing their own kids to increase their hours as a way to boost those partners’ already astonishing profits, maybe they’d rethink the worst consequences of a destructive regime.

Similarly, the average attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratio for the Am Law 100 has doubled since 1985 (from 1.75 to 3.5). Perhaps managing partners wouldn’t have been so quick to pull up the ladder on lawyers who sat at their Thanksgiving tables every year, alongside those managing partners’ grandchildren who accompanied them. Not every young associate in a big firm should advance to equity partner. But offering a 5 to 10 percent chance of success following 7 to 12 years of hard work isn’t a motivator. It invites new attorneys to prepare for failure.

Finally, compared to the stability of a functional family, the current big law firm lateral partner hiring frenzy adopts the equivalent of periodic divorce as a cultural norm. Pursued as a growth strategy, it destroys institutional continuity, cohesion, community, and morale. Ironically, according to Professor William Henderson’s recent American Lawyer article “Playing Not to Lose,” it offers little or no net economic value in return.

Adopting a family outlook or a parental perspective isn’t a foolproof cure for what ails the legal profession. Indeed, running law schools and big firms according to the Lannister family’s values (“The Game of Thrones”) — or those of Don Corleone’s (“The Godfather”) — might not change things very much at all.

It’s also worth remembering that Oedipus was somebody’s child, too.

“GAMING THE REPORTING”?

In a recent interview with Lee Pacchia of Bloomberg News, U.S. News & World Report’s director of data research Robert Morse explained this year’s only revision to his law school rankings methodology. Morse gave different weights to various employment outcomes for class of 2011 graduates. But he didn’t disclose precisely what those different weights were.

Morse said that such transparency worried him. Full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree got 100 percent credit. But he didn’t reveal the weight he gave other employment categories (part-time, short-term, non-J.D.-required) because he didn’t want deans “gaming the reporting of their results.” It was an interesting choice of words.

Teapot tempests

In some ways, all of the attention to the changes in this year’s rankings methodology is remarkable. Certainly, a school’s employment success for graduates is important. But the nine-month data point for which the ABA now requires more detailed information accounts for only 14 percent of a school’s total U.S. News ranking score. To put that in context, consider some of the more consequential rankings criteria.

Fifteen percent of every school’s U.S. News score is based on a non-scientific survey of practicing lawyers and judges. The survey response rate this year was only nine percent.

Likewise, the “peer assessment” survey that goes to four faculty members at every accredited law school — dean, dean of academic affairs, chair of faculty appointments, and most recently tenured faculty member — accounts for 25 percent of a school’s ranking score. It asks those four individuals to rate all ABA-accredited law schools from 1-to-5, without requiring that any respondent know anything about the schools he or she assesses.

Taken together, the two so-called “quality assessment” surveys comprising 40 percent of every school’s ranking are a self-reinforcing contest for brand recognition. As measures of substantive educational value, well, you decide.

Game of moans

But if, as Morse suggests, his concern is “gaming the reporting,” he must be worried that some deans would either: 1) self-report inaccurate data; or 2) otherwise change their behavior in an effort to raise their school’s ranking. He’s a bit late to both parties.

Scandals engulfed prominent law schools that submitted false LSAT and GPA statistics for their entering classes. But how many others haven’t been caught cheating? No one knows. As for permissible behavior that accomplishes similar objectives, examples abound.

For years, deans seeking to enhance the 12.5 percent of the rankings component relating to median LSAT scores for J.D. entrants have been “buying” higher LSATs through “merit” scholarships. Need-based financial aid has suffered. Ironically, those merit scholarships often disappear after the first year of law school.

Likewise, the faculty resources component is 15 percent of every school’s ranking. But it encourages expenditures — and skyrocketing tuition — without regard to whether they benefit a student’s educational experience.

Whom to blame

Morse establishes the criteria and methodology that incentivize behavior producing these and many other perverse outcomes. But he doesn’t think that any of the current problems confronting the profession are his fault.

“U.S. News isn’t the ABA,” he told Pacchia. “U.S. News doesn’t regulate the reporting requirements…[W]e’re not responsible for the cost of law school, the state of legal employment, the impact that recession has had on hiring, or the fact that 10 or 20 new law schools have opened over the last couple decades. We’re not responsible for the imbalance of jobs to graduates. No, I think we’re not responsible. I think we’ve helped prospective students understand what they are getting into than they were previously.”

Of course, the problem isn’t just the flawed rankings methodology itself. Also culpable are the decision-makers who regard a single overall ranking as meaningful — students, deans, university administrators, and trustees. Without their blind deference to a superficially appealing metric, the U.S. News rankings would disappear — just as the U.S. News & World Report print news magazine did years ago.

Cultural obsession

Pervasive throughout society, rankings may be a permanent feature of the legal profession. But it’s worth remembering that they’re relatively new. Before the first U.S. News list of only the top 20 law schools in 1987, prospective students and law schools somehow found each other.

Today, rankings facilitate laziness. The illusory comfort of an unambiguous numerical solution is easier than engaging in critical thought and exercising independent judgment. Forgotten along the way is the computer science maxim “garbage in, garbage out.”

ANOTHER LAW SCHOOL DEAN MISSES THE TARGET

Today’s chapter in the continuing story of proposals to reform legal education comes from James L. Huffman, emeritus dean at Lewis & Clark Law School. His February 20 Wall Street Journal op-ed recommends eliminating ABA law school accreditation requirements. Maybe that’s a good idea, but not for the reasons that Huffman offers.

Mischaracterizing the crisis

Huffman notes that the sharp decline in the number of law school applicants has created “a true crisis, and law schools are scrambling to figure out how to manage with fewer tuition-paying students.” He proposes to end that crisis by helping marginal law schools devise a way to remain in business. Specifically, he thinks that removing most accreditation requirements would unleash a wave of innovation in legal education and “let a thousand flowers bloom.”

Here’s a better idea: prune the garden.

A thread of insight

Staggering student debt accompanying dismal job prospects for recent graduates causes Huffman to lament the oversupply of lawyers. He suggests that the ABA’s task force “should start by looking within: The organization is a major source of the problem.” Then he lambasts the organization’s accreditation standards as too restrictive.

Huffman’s non sequitur fails to mention the ABA’s most obvious contribution to attorney oversupply: accrediting too many new schools — 15 since 2003 alone. Likewise, Huffman observes correctly that the ABA has become a victim of regulatory capture, but he doesn’t connect it directly to the worst consequences of that victimization: deans free to engage in deceptive behavior to fill their classrooms. Graduate employment rates looked great when schools could include short-term and part-time jobs, work that didn’t require a law degree, and temporary positions that the schools themselves had created.

Missing the real target

Why did deans do it? Because everybody did. Greater transparency risked deterring applicants, which had implications for a school’s U.S. News ranking. Unilateral candor threatened the business model.

Likewise, the rankings methodology has created powerful incentives to maximize spending on expensive new facilities. No ABA accreditation standard requires an established law school to construct a new library. But building one can help to attract applicants, and its added cost boosts the “average expenditures per student” component of a school’s ranking.

Who’s to blame?

Huffman is correct that the ABA has failed the profession. But so have deans who have allowed U.S. News rankings criteria to displace their independent judgment. Rankings have become central to their business models and the youngest generation of lawyers is paying the price.

Some metrics relating to emeritus dean Huffman’s own school prove it:

— At the time of Huffman’s op-ed, the “Admissions” section of Lewis & Clark’s website displayed this headline: “Law school surges in U.S. News & World Report rankings.” The link took the reader to an article about the school’s nine-place jump to 58th in the 2013 edition.

— Full-time tuition and fees at Lewis & Clark currently exceed $38,000 — a 50 percent increase over 2005, when it was around $25,000.

— Lewis & Clark’s annual entries in the 2006 through 2012 ABA Official Law School Guides included employment rates nine months after graduation ranging from 89 to 97 percent. But like most law schools, it achieved those spectacular results using the ABA’s expansive definition of employed. Under the new rules first applicable to the class of 2011, nine months after graduation only 46 percent of Lewis & Clark graduates had full-time long-term jobs requiring a legal degree.

Reality therapy

Huffman’s rhetoric about ABA accreditation requirements as entry barriers that inhibit competition and innovation misses the mark. Allowing schools to experiment with what he calls a “bonanza of legal education alternatives” ignores a harsh reality: There aren’t enough law jobs for the number of graduates that schools already produce, and there won’t be for a long time.

Allowing schools to increase their use of cheaper non-tenured faculty and to offer on-line classes, as Huffman suggests, won’t solve that problem. In fact, absent other necessary reforms, cost reductions leading to lower tuition would likely increase the oversupply of lawyers.

The plethora of deans publishing op-eds in major newspapers presents a new danger. When they Identify false issues and propose ineffectual reforms, they divert needed attention from the real causes of the current crisis. A thorough search for the origins of the lawyer bubble should lead most deans to a painful encounter with a mirror.

That’s an op-ed I’m eager to read.

LAW SCHOOL DISEQUILIBRIUM

It sure seems odd. On January 30, The New York Times reported this year’s dramatic decline in law school applications. A day later, a Wall Street Journal article described the many new schools that are in the works. Economists might call that “market disequilibrium.” More appropriate concepts might be incentivized idiocy and subsidized stupidity. U.S. News rankings incentivize the idiocy; taxpayer dollars subsidize the stupidity.

The WSJ article suggested that some administrators began implementing plans to add law schools “before the current drop [in applicants] became apparent.” However, the two schools in the article, Indiana Tech and the University of North Texas-Dallas College of Law, don’t have that excuse.

Indiana Tech didn’t complete its feasibility study of a proposed new law school until May 2011. The Texas legislature authorized the creation of the UNT-Dallas College of Law in 2009, as the Great Recession deepened. In the 2011-2012 state budget, it earmarked $5 million in funding. The school plans to start classes in 2014.

As for other new schools, what exactly wasn’t apparent when they came to life? Only obvious things that those responsible for creating the schools didn’t want to see.

Follow four numbers

First, from 2003 to 2008, the number of law school applicants dropped steadily — from 100,000 to 83,000. As the Great Recession made law school an attractive place to wait out a dismal economy, total applicants rose to 88,000 before resuming a downward trajectory, perhaps to as few as 54,000 for fall 2013 admission.

Second, in the face of an applicant pool that began shrinking ten years ago, first-year enrollment from 2003 to 2009 remained around 49,000. Refugees from the Great Recession pushed it over 51,000 in 2009 and 2010 before it settled back to 48,700 in 2011.

Third, when these 40,000+ students graduate, there will be full-time legal jobs for about half of them. But that’s not a new development, only a newly disclosed one. To game the U.S. News rankings, law schools have been fudging their employment numbers for years, and they know it.

Finally, at the end of 2003, there were 187 accredited law schools in the United States. Today, there are 201. Attempting to convey the magnitude of the current crisis, University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter told the Times that he expects “as many as 10 schools to close over the next decade.” But over the past ten years alone, the ABA has accredited 14.

What are the lessons?

First, a decline in applications alone doesn’t assure any change in the profession’s errant direction. The real-life experiment from 2003 to 2008 proves that for as long as the number of applicants exceeds the number of available places in law school, academic leaders who think they can make money on law students will continue to build schools.

Second, in an effort to reverse the downward trend in applications, some deans beat the bushes for additional students, even as the job market for their graduates shrinks. Case Western Reserve Law School dean Lawrence Mitchell’s recent op-ed in the NY Times is an example. Another example is an article that Professor Carla Pratt, associate dean of academic affairs at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, wrote last September for The National Law Journal: “Law School Is Still a Good Investment for African-Americans.

Yet another example comes from the UNT-Dallas College of Law. According to the January 31 WSJ article, professor and associate dean for academic affairs Ellen S. Pryor, acknowledges that applications have plummeted, but “the fact that the nationwide numbers are down doesn’t dishearten us from thinking we’ll get really good students and fulfill our mission.”

And what might that mission be? According to the Journal, UNT-Dallas hopes to draw a different pool of applicants than other north Texas law schools. In other words, even undergraduates who never before gave serious thought to law school should prepare themselves for an onslaught of sales pitches.

Limited accountability

Here’s one reason for the profound disconnect: Administrators and deans maintain an unhealthy distance from the economic hardships that their worst decisions inflict on graduates. Federally-guaranteed student loans fuel a system that relieves law schools of financial accountability.

Imagine how the world might change if the government as guarantor had recourse to a student’s law school for that graduate’s subsequent loan default. In the absence of such a market solution, educational debt collection has become a growth industry as law schools avoid the messes they’ve made.

Welcome to The Lawyer Bubble.

THE LAWYER BUBBLE

Case Western Reserve Law School Dean Lawrence E. Mitchell’s recent op-ed in the New York Times proves that, like many law school deans, he is living in a bubble. Indeed, the views he expresses are one reason that I wrote THE LAWYER BUBBLE – A Profession in Crisiswhich Basic Books will publish in April 2013. (Another reason is the troubling transformation of most big law firms, but that’s for another day.)

Mitchell’s spirited defense in “Law School Is Worth the Money” concludes that the “overwrought atmosphere has created irrationalities that prevent talented students from realizing their ambitions.” Apparently, he thinks everyone should just calm down, ignore facts, and keep pushing naive undergraduates into law schools, without regard to what will happen to them thereafter. He’s wrong.

Employment

Mitchell argues that a legal career is no worse choice than any other because the job market is bad in many industries. He notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in the number of lawyers’ jobs from 2010 to 2020 at 10 percent — about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Here’s the thing: that 10 percent growth is for the entire ten years from 2010 to 2020 — a total net increase in the number of lawyer jobs of 73,600. And that number is down from a 2008 BLS estimate of 98,500. As 44,000 new law graduates hit the market each year, law schools are pumping out enough new attorneys for a decade every two years.

Other studies factoring in attrition suggest that, given the mismatch between supply and demand, there might be law jobs for about half of all graduates over the next 10 years. Case Western Reserve, where Mitchell is dean, is typical of mid-range law schools: it’s a fine institution, but according to the ABA, nine months after graduation, only 94 of the 201-member class of 2011 had full-time long-term job requiring bar passage.

Excessive tuition

With respect to the cost of a legal education, Mitchell says that “one report shows that tuition at private law schools has increased 160 percent from 1985 to 2011.” He doesn’t identify his source, but according to the ABA, median private law school tuition in 1985 was $7,385. In 2011, it was $39,496 — a more than 400 percent increase. The rate of increase for resident public law school tuition was far greater. Assuming that he’s adjusting for constant dollars, that’s still a whopping increase.

Then Mitchell compares legal education with medical schools where, even by his calculations, tuition has increased less (63 percent since 1985). But he excuses law school excesses by arguing that medical schools began the period with average tuition four times higher. That’s a false equivalence.

It should cost far less to train a lawyer than a doctor — as it did in 1985. But today it doesn’t. Why not? Because law schools have become cash cows, returning as much as 30 percent of tuition revenues to their universities. Moreover, pandering to U.S. News ranking criteria encourages law school expenditures without regard to value added. Federally guaranteed student loans fuel the system in ways that relieve law schools from meaningful accountability as they glut the market.

Debt

Mitchell dismisses the fact that average law school debt exceeds $125,000 with the cavalier assertion that “the average lawyer’s salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.” He notes that attorneys’ average starting salaries have increased 125 percent since 1985.

Unfortunately, the average includes only those who actually have lawyer jobs, and it doesn’t consider the fact that, as Above the Law’s Elie Mystal emphasizes often, the average masks the bimodal distribution of attorney income. Thanks to the skewing effect of big law firm compensation (where only 15 percent of lawyers practice), most lawyers earn far less than the industry average. Moreover, median starting salaries for new attorneys have been dropping like a rock — from $72,000 to $60,000 since 2009. Meanwhile, law school tuition keeps going the other way.

Mitchell’s real complaint is probably that prospective law students are finally beginning to see the legal world more clearly and, at long last, the results may be showing up in reduced applications to schools below the top tier. But he need not worry because ongoing market distortions make equilibrium far, far away. In 2012, almost 70,000 prospective lawyers applied for almost 50,000 law school spots — even though there may be legal jobs for only half of them.

Armed with complete information about the challenges and rewards of a legal career, the best and the brightest future lawyers will still enter the profession. They’ll incur six-figure debt that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy because they’ll conclude that the investment is worth the risk — but they’ll consider the risk. Making an informed decision requires them to separate facts from magical thinking. For that, they’re on their own because, as Dean Mitchell reveals, most deans don’t — or won’t.