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.

UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Apparently, some law school deans just don’t get it and never will. One of them, Dean Rudy Hasl of Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, wins my latest Unfortunate Comment Award with his remarks reported in The Wall Street Journal:

“You can’t measure the value of a law degree in terms of what your employment number was nine months after graduation.”

All right. Then how should we measure it?

Bad facts and getting worse

Hasl was trying to explain away his school’s position in the bottom five of those reporting the new ABA-required metric: percentage of graduates with full-time long-term jobs requiring a law degree. Thomas Jefferson School of Law reported that only 27 percent of its 2011 class held such jobs nine months after graduation.

Transparency can be unflattering. For the profession overall, the full-time, degree-required, nine-month employment rate for all 2011 law graduates was 55 percent. Predictably, graduates from the top schools fared the best. But the interesting comparisons are with last year — when the ABA and U.S. News allowed schools to include part-time and non-legal jobs in classifying their graduates as employed.

According to the Journal, data that Thomas Jefferson reported to U.S. News under last year’s broader definition showed a 68 percent employment rate nine months out. That’s nothing to brag about, but this year’s 27 percent long-term degree-required employment rate is stunning. Nevertheless, Dean Hasl says not to worry.

What metric matters?

Hasl explained that the nine-month employment rate is inappropriate because a “graduate who takes the California bar exam in July…won’t get the results until late November. Many employers won’t even interview a graduate who hasn’t been licensed.”

That moves his argument to even weaker ground. The July 2011 California bar passage rates for first-time test-takers put Thomas Jefferson School of Law dead last among 20 California ABA-approved schools — with a 33 percent bar passage rate.

Last year, it became the first of many schools facing alumni suits alleging that misleading and deceptive post-graduation employment statistics induced them to attend law school in the first place. Among their defenses, some schools have asserted a variation of the “everyone does it and the ABA says it’s ok” defense. When I was a kid, that sort of excuse for failing to exercise independent judgment didn’t usually work with my parents.

The judge in a similar case against the New York School of Law (not to be confused with NYU) didn’t buy it, either. But the court dismissed that complaint on more tenuous grounds. It thought that college graduates considering law school were “a sophisticated subset of education consumers, capable of sifting through data and weighing alternatives before making a decision regarding their post-college options.”

That reflects some serious magical thinking about the way law schools have bombarded prospective students with dubious information. Only two years ago, the overall percentage of all law school graduates supposedly employed nine months after graduation was in the 90s — but few schools bragged about the ones who were part-time baristas at Starbucks or greeters at Wal-Mart.

Now what?

Thomas Jefferson School of Law will charge full-time students $42,000 for annual tuition in 2012-2013. What are those students buying for their more than $120,000 degrees? A one-in-three chance of passing the California bar on the first try and slightly better than a one-in-four chance of holding a full-time degree-required job nine months after graduation.

If you graduated a few years ago, you might also have a spot in a putative class action against your alma mater. The court hasn’t dismissed that complaint.

UNFORTUNATE (AND IRONIC) COMMENT AWARD

If Dewey & LeBeouf has so-called friends like its former partner John Altorelli…well, you know the rest.

Altorelli’s recent comments to Am Law Daily include so many candidates for my Unfortunate Comment Award that it’s difficult to choose just one. So let’s go with the most ironic. In discussing whether Dewey could have done a better job managing information — presumably referring to publicity about attorney layoffs, partner departures and financial results — Altorelli said:

“In most law firms, I think, as good as the lawyers are at advising clients, they’re not as good at taking their own advice. They are surprisingly obtuse when it comes to their own situation.”

He then proceeded to reveal himself as someone surprisingly obtuse about his own situation. Before listing those inadvertent revelations, consider how Altorelli himself embodies the lateral partner hiring phenomenon that has overtaken much of big law as a dominant business strategy.

The revolving lateral door

After  graduating from Cornell Law School in 1993, Altorelli made his way through four law firms in only fourteen years — LeBeouf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, Paul Hastings, Reed Smith, and Dewey Ballantine (shortly after the collapse of Dewey’s merger talks with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and a few months before its October 2007 merger with his original firm, LeBeouf Lamb). Such a journey is not likely to produce deep institutional loyalties anywhere.

He’s not unique. For example, as I composed this post The Wall Street Journal reported that Brette Simon had left Jones Day to join Bryan Cave. Since graduating in 1994, she’s also worked at O’Melveney & Myers, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.

Still, Altorelli’s book of business apparently qualified him for a place on Dewey & LeBeouf’s executive committee. He says former chairman Steven H. Davis will “take the axe” for whatever is going wrong now, but surely the firm’s executive committee wasn’t a collection of potted plants. It seems improbable that Davis alone could have forged and executed Dewey initiatives that issued bonds and used guaranteed multi-year compensation contracts to lure prominent lateral partners.

But now Altorelli says: “The only people who need contracts are those who are not so secure. I feel bad that firms have to go that way, in competition for laterals and the like.”

Not my fault

Then again, Altorelli also suggests that management hasn’t contributed to Dewey’s current problems. Rather, it was just “bad timing” of a long recession that didn’t allow the firm to burn off expenses associated with the Dewey-LeBeouf merger: “We kept thinking it’ll get better tomorrow, then it doesn’t get better. The next thing you know it’s been four years.”

Magical thinking rarely results in a winning strategic plan. Curiously, Altorelli also notes that during that same period while he was at the firm, he and Dewey prospered: “I had five of the best years of my career.”

As he headed for his fifth big firm in nineteen years, Altorelli offered several additional insights that qualify for stand alone Unfortunate Comment Awards, especially coming from one of the firm’s recent executive committee members who professes continuing hope for Dewey’s future:

— “I’m not sure how they can weather the departures.”

— “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, I don’t know how many more they can suffer.”

— “[There] could be a survival path for a smaller Dewey. I don’t know how that would work. They seem to have a strategy. Or the firm will be busted up into a bunch of little pieces and survive in the hearts and souls of a lot of good people.”

Yet perhaps the unkindest cut of all came in contrasting his professional life at Dewey with things that will be better at DLA Piper, where he will serve on its executive committee:

“Altorelli says he was drawn to his new firm by the chance to help change the way he practices law. Altorelli…says the firm is experimenting with ways to ‘try to get back to more of an intellectual pursuit, rather than just grinding out the paper.'”

If Altorelli’s interview had appeared five days earlier, I would have looked for this concluding line: “April Fool!”

Just delete “April.”

UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Today’s “Unfortunate Comment Award” winner is ABA President William (“Bill”) Robinson III, who thinks he has found those responsible for the glut of unemployed, debt-ridden young lawyers: the lawyers themselves.

“It’s inconceivable to me that someone with a college education, or a graduate-level education, would not know before deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over the last several years and that the job market out there is not as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years ago,” he told Reuters during a January 4 interview.

Which year we talkin’ ’bout, Willis?

Recent graduates made the decision to attend law school in the mid-2000s, when the economy was booming. Even most students now in their third year decided to apply by spring 2008 — before the crash — when they registered for the LSAT. Some of those current 3-Ls were undergraduates in the first-ever offering of a course on the legal profession that I still teach at Northwestern. What were they thinking? I’ll tell you.

I’ve written that colleges and law schools still make little effort to bridge a pervasive expectations-reality gap. Anyone investigating law schools in early 2008 saw slick promotional materials that reinforced the pervasive media image of a glamorous legal career.

Jobs? No problem. Prospective students read that for all recent graduates of all law schools, the overall average employment rate was 93 percent. They had no reason to assume that schools self-reported misleading statistics to the ABA, NALP, and the all-powerful U.S. News ranking machine.

But unlike most of their law school-bound peers, my students scrutinized the flawed U.S. News approach. Among other things, they discovered that employment rates based on the ABA’s annual law school questionnaire were cruel jokes. That questionnaire allowed deans to report graduates as employed, even if they were flipping burgers or working for faculty members as temporary research assistants.

Law school websites followed that lead because the U.S. News rankings methodology penalized greater transparency and candor. In his Reuters interview, Robinson suggested that problematic employment statistics afflicted “no more than four” out of 200 accredited institutions, but he’s just plain wrong. Like their prospective students, most deans still obsess over U.S. News rankings as essential elements of their business models.

The beat goes on

With the ABA’s assistance, such law school deception continues today. Only last month — December 2011 — did the Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar finally approve changes in collecting and publishing law graduate placement data: Full- or part-time jobs? Bar passage required? Law school-funded? Some might consider that information relevant to a prospective law student trying to make an informed decision. Until this year, the ABA didn’t. The U.S. News rankings guru, Robert Morse, deferred to the ABA.

The ABA is accelerating the new reporting process so that “the placement data for the class of 2011 will be published during the summer of 2012, not the summer of 2013.” That’s right, even now, a pre-law student looking at ABA-sanctioned employment information won’t find the whole ugly truth. (Notable exceptions include the University of Chicago and Yale.) Consequently, any law school still looks like a decent investment of time and money, but as Professor William Henderson and Rachel Zahorsky note in the January 2012 issue of the ABA Journal, it often isn’t.

Students haven’t been blind to the economy. But bragging about 90+ percent employment rates didn’t (and doesn’t) deter prospective lawyers. Quite the contrary. Law school has long been the last bastion of the liberal arts major who can’t decide what’s next. The promise of a near-certain job in tough times makes that default solution more appealing.

Even the relatively few undergraduates (including the undergraduates in my class) paying close attention to big firm layoffs in 2009 were hopeful. They thought that by the time they came out of law school, the economy and the market for attorneys would improve. So did many smart, informed people. Youthful optimism isn’t a sin.

Which takes me to ABA President Robinson’s most telling comment in the Reuters interview: “We’re not talking about kids who are making these decisions.”

Perhaps we’re not talking about his 20-something offspring, but they’re somebody’s kids. The ABA and most law school deans owed them a better shake than they’ve received.

It’s ironic and unfortunate: one of the most visible spokesmen in a noble profession blames the victims.

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.

UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

The Case Against Law School” in last week’s NY Times opened with an article by former Northwestern Law School Dean David Van Zandt, whom I’ve never met. Regarded as a maverick in the legal academy, he’s now president of The New School. I don’t know how the Times selected its essayists, but Van Zandt earned my “Unfortunate Comment Award” with this:

“Law schools and their faculties have a vested interest in requiring students to spend more time on campus and more money at their schools.”

If he intended his revelation to be that of a whistle-blower, he blew the whistle on himself. Tackling vested interests that run contrary to what’s best for students should be a defining characteristic of leadership in higher education. But during his fifteen years as dean, he contributed uniquely to a problem he now decries — squeezing more money out of students.

Here’s how. Van Zandt was an outspoken advocate of running law schools as businesses and relying on misguided metrics to do it. One was the U.S. News rankings, which he publicly embraced and almost every other dean condemned. When it comes to money, the rankings methodology — so flawed in so many ways — rewards schools’ high expenditures (requiring high tuition) without regard to value.

Perhaps it’s coincidental, but consider the tuition trend during Van Zandt’s tenure: When he took over in 1995, three years’ tuition for a Northwestern law degree totaled $60,000. By 2008, it had more than doubled to third highest in the country. When he left in 2010, the degree cost $150,000 — just for tuition. Student law school debt has risen accordingly.

When used to run law schools, misguided metrics pose other perils to student welfare. For example, transfer students’ LSATs don’t count in the U.S. News calculus, but they’re lucrative additions to any law school’s bottom line. Under Van Zandt, Northwestern recruited transfers aggressively. But the resulting growth in graduating class size hasn’t served students who entered as 1Ls, especially in today’s job market.

Then there’s the accelerated JD — a flagship initiative of Van Zandt’s final long-range strategic plan that he still promotes from afar. The plan incorporated his view of law school as a business that placed special value on large firms. After all, they were key customers because of their metrics: Big law pays new graduates the highest starting salaries, thereby justifying ever-increasing tuition. This dubious short-term approach, along with his efforts to sell it, drew attention away from the school’s other vitally important strengths.

As for the students, acceleration buries first-years in additional courses to develop “core competencies” while reducing time for thoughtful reflection about their places in a diverse and challenging profession. Before implementing that plan, he should have read Scott Turow’s One L and reviewed big law’s associate attrition and career dissatisfaction rates.

Finally, students in the two-year accelerated program pay the same total tuition as the traditional three-year people because, according to the school’s website, “Northwestern Law prices tuition by the degree pursued rather than the length of enrollment.” That’s a choice, not an economic imperative.

Defending that choice in the Times, Van Zandt wrote, “The cost to the school [of the accelerated students] remains the same because the credit hours remain the same.” That’s a non-sequitur. Certainly, the accelerated group adds cost for its own first-year section — five required courses, plus negotiation and business school-type classes. But twenty-seven students  in the class of 2011 generated $4 million incremental tuition dollars during their two years. As Van Zandt elsewhere explained, after their first year “they are integrated with the rest of the students.” If so, the school’s marginal cost of accelerated students’ second-year credit hours should be minimal. Including them with everyone else should bring its average cost per student down, too.

It turns out that running law schools as businesses that focus on misguided metrics is dangerous. During Van Zandt’s final years at Northwestern, its U.S. News ranking dropped from ninth to twelfth and its NLJ 250 placement rate for graduates joining big firms dropped from first to eighth.

Call it karma.

EXPLAINING BAD BEHAVIOR

I’ve never met Steven Pesner, who lit up the legal blogosphere with his now infamous e-mail to Akin Gump’s New York office litigation billers and their secretaries. (http://abovethelaw.com/2010/11/akin-gump-partner-pens-email-fantasy-about-firing-delinquent-time-keepers/) Some say he’s typical of big law partners; others argue hopefully that he is an exception. Someone else can tackle that survey. I’m interested in what the episode reveals about the prevailing large firm business model that put him in a position to disseminate the words that now define him.

First, his fundamental point applies to almost all large firms: Get your time in because the billable hour remains big law’s cornerstone. People working for Pesner undoubtedly log lots of them; they lead to revenue — an essential prerequisite to his internal power. That’s not unique.

Second, the model has many problems, only one of which he targets: Tardy time submission. Some attorneys wait a week — or even a month — before trying to “reconstruct” their billable activities. That allows them to believe that doing their best to remember earlier tasks isn’t lying. Insofar as Pesner sought to deter creative writing at week’s or month’s end, he was protecting clients and his firm. Of course, that doesn’t justify his rhetoric. Nothing can. But his topic reveals one of many flaws infecting the billable hour regime.

Third, economic self-interest looms large. His message went exclusively to all New York litigation personnel — a point commentators have ignored. Pesner’s departmental billings may well frame a larger internal debate: His NY litigation group’s near-term economic standing. He might have been preparing to defend his memo’s recipients against annual intra- and interoffice warfare with corporate, restructuring, and transactional group leaders. Most large firm equity partners eat what they kill, along with what they successfully claim to have killed. In many firms, allocating profits often starts geographically by office practice group before proceeding to rainmakers who then decide the fate of individuals within each group.

Fourth, Pesner’s valid points morphed into a tirade that reveals pervasive equity partner hubris, especially among big law managers: He believes his own press releases.

“9. For those of you who think you are exempt from doing time sheets on a daily basis, I’d suggest that you reevaluate your importance and get ready to prove that (a) you are busier than I am on legal work, (b) you are busier than I am on client development work, (c) you are busier than I am on firm work and (d) [Redacted] and I do not have better things to do with our time than beg you to be responsible.”

The word “I” appears five times. That’s how some senior partners orient their world — around themselves. Few, if any, others compare favorably to their own idealized self-images. Their constant refrain is “today’s young people just don’t want to work as hard as I did.” But as associates, none had the challenge of a BlackBerry keeping them on-call 24/7. In fact, they didn’t even have annual minimum billable hours requirements. Their hypocrisy is stunning.

Finally, he acknowledges the life-or-death power that all senior partners wield over subordinates’ careers:

“10. Candidly, I’d put every future material violator’s name in a hat, randomly pick out a name, and publicly fire the person on the spot—to demonstrate that time sheet compliance is serious business. And incidentally, it is my understanding that the job market is not so good right now in case you did not know.”

The immediate issue was time submissions, but the underlying attitude infects working relationships throughout big law. Pesner was unique in his candor, but not in his views. Few dare to challenge such a partner in a position to make or break careers. Pesner’s threatening finale leaves no doubt in that respect:

“11. Also, please remember that I have a long and excellent memory.

If you have any questions, think long and hard before asking them—this simply is not very complicated.”

Sometimes a few words from one man are worth a thousand pictures of what too many others in his profession have become.