DEAR ABA…

Dear ABA (especially members of the House of Delegates to the upcoming annual meeting in Chicago):

For years, America’s dysfunctional system of financing legal education has produced too many lawyers for too few jobs — and too many law graduates with too much educational debt. A year ago, the ABA created yet another Task Force to consider the problem. The June 17, 2015 Final Report on the Financing of Legal Education embodies the failure of that Task Force’s mission. It now goes to the House of Delegates for approval.

If the Delegates are interested in rehabilitating the ABA’s credibility and restoring public confidence in the profession on an issue of critical importance to the country, they could take this simple step: reject the Task Force Report. That’s right. Rather than giving the typical rubber stamp of approval amid flowery speeches thanking Task Force members for their time and effort in generating a hollow ABA statement summarizing the obvious, the House of Delegates could just say no.

Round One

Some observers had hoped that the ABA’s previous Task Force on the Future of Legal Education might tackle the daunting issues responsible for our dysfunctional legal education market. After all, the ABA’s leaders promised that the 2012 Task Force would make “recommendations to the American Bar Association on how law schools, the ABA, and other groups and organizations can take concrete steps to address issues concerning the economics of legal education and its delivery.”

To its credit, the 2012 Task Force put its toe in those waters, observing that the “system of lending distances law schools from market considerations and it supports pricing practices that do not well serve either the public or private value in legal education.”

Let’s state the problem more bluntly: Marginal law schools are relying on exploding student debt to produce revenue streams that keep them alive. They get away with it because federal student loans come without school-specific accountability for graduates’ dismal employment outcomes. Schools have no financial skin in the game.

But the 2012 Task Force didn’t go beyond identifying the problem because, it said, “The time and resources available to the Task Force have made it impractical to develop a structure of equitable and effective solutions.”

Round Two

So in May 2014, then-ABA president James R. Silkenat announced the creation of a new Task Force — one specifically devoted to the Financing of Legal Education. It was supposed to pick up where the 2012 Task Force had stalled. It was going to “conduct a comprehensive study of the complex economic and political issues involved and produce sound recommendations to inform policymakers throughout the legal community.”

The 2014-2015 Task Force Report recites that 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their total revenues from tuition and that the average for all law school is 69 percent. It also reports that higher tuition has produced more student debt, even as job prospects for graduates of marginal schools have languished.

Since 2006 alone, average student debt has increased by 25 percent (private schools) and 34 percent (public schools) in inflation-adjusted dollars. Average student debt at graduation from private law schools in 2013 was $127,000; for public schools it was $88,000. Meanwhile, only about half of new law graduates are obtaining full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD.

But the new Task Force didn’t pursue this obvious market dysfunction. Instead, its Final Report offers superficial fixes: better debt counseling for students, better disclosure forms from the Department of Education, more dissemination of how schools spend their money, and continued experimentation with law curriculum. They ignore the core financial accountability problem, rather than confronting and addressing it.

Insularity and Self-Interest

The chairman of the 2014-2015 Task Force was Dennis W. Archer, former mayor of Detroit, former Michigan Supreme Court justice, and past president of the ABA. Did the ABA think no one would notice that Archer also chairs of the national policy board of Infilaw — a private equity-owned consortium of three for-profit law schools — Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal.

The Infilaw schools feed on the market dysfunction that the current system for funding legal education creates. The job market for law graduates from schools such as Infilaw’s remains dismal. But even in the face of their graduates’ poor full-time long-term JD-required employment results, Infilaw’s schools increased enrollment and have become leaders in creating debt for their students.

Archer wasn’t the only problematic appointment to the 2014-2015 Task Force. Another member, Christopher Chapman, is president and CEO of Access Group — the collective voice of 197 ABA-accredited law schools.

According to the Access Group’s website, “During the course of our 30+ year existence, we became a leading provider of affordable student loans for aspiring professionals in law, medicine, dentistry, health, business, and other disciplines. As such, we served as a national originator, holder and servicer of federally guaranteed and private, credit-based loans, funding more than $18 billion of education loans since 2001.”

Enough said.

Forfeiting The Right To Be Heard

The fact that, as one 2014-2015 Task Force witness said, legal education may be the “canary in the coal mine” on issues relating to student debt and financing higher education generally is no excuse for the profession to refrain from offering potential solutions.

For that reason, at its upcoming August 3-4 meeting in Chicago, the ABA House of Delegates could reject the Task Force Report. It could then reconstitute the Task Force membership with individuals willing to deliver the tough message that the profession needs. It could direct the newly constituted group to develop meaningful proposals that tie law student loan availability to individual law school outcomes. My recent article in the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, “Bankruptcy and Bad Behavior,” offers one idea that would force law schools to put some financial skin in the game; others have suggested plans warranting serious consideration.

The ABA describes its mission as “committed to doing what only a national association of attorneys can do: serving our members, improving the legal profession, eliminating bias and enhancing diversity, and advancing the rule of law throughout the United States and around the world.”

In a single vote rejecting the 2014-2015 Task Force Report on the Financing of Legal Education, the House of Delegates could match those lofty words with action.

On this vitally important issue, the ABA leadership has caused many attorneys and the general public to become cynical about the organization’s motives. The House of Delegates has a unique opportunity to prove that the ABA is not just the vehicle whereby an insular, self-interested group seeks to preserve the present at the expense of the future. The House of Delegates can be part of the solution, or it can remain part of the problem.

Which path will it choose? The whole legal world is watching.

A TROUBLESOME TASK FORCE

For any lawyer, credibility is everything. A key reason that the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education produced such a worthwhile report and recommendations was the stature and credibility of its participants, especially its chairman, retired Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. Although imperfect, the effort and outcome have received widespread and well-deserved praise.

On a vitally important issue, the Task Force punted. With respect to the cost and financing of legal education, a new ABA task force has now stepped into that breach. Unlike its predecessor, the ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education has a credibility problem at the outset.

The Best Intentions

The chairman of the new task force, Dennis W. Archer, is undoubtedly a decent man trying to the right thing. In fact, he has an impressive history of public service. But as a former associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Archer understands that appearances matter. In fact, the mere appearance of impropriety in a case is enough for a judge to step aside. It’s not a question of personal ethics. Rather, it’s a matter of public perceptions about the integrity of a decision-making process and its outcomes.

Since 2010, Archer has been a member of the National Policy Board of InfiLaw, which owns three private ABA-accredited for-profit law schools: Arizona Summit Law School (formerly the Phoenix Law School), Charlotte School of Law, and the Florida Coastal School of Law. The board on which he sits “provides counsel upon the strategic direction and long-term plans for the InfiLaw system of independent law schools….”

The Business Model

Annual tuition and fees at all three InfiLaw schools exceed $40,000. According to their ABA disclosures, the schools have been big beneficiaries of the current dysfunctional system of financing a legal degree. At Arizona Summit, median federal law student debt between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013 was $184,825. At Florida Coastal, it was $162,549. The Charlotte Law School median was $155,697, plus another $20,018 in private loans.

At all three law schools, students’ “institutional financial plan debt” was zero. The InfiLaw schools have plenty of federal student loan dollars skin in the game, but none of their own.

A Disturbing Trend

Even as the market for lawyers has languished, InfiLaw schools increased enrollment. According to the ABA, the three schools graduated a combined class of 679 students in 2011. Nine months later, only 256 had long-term, full-time jobs requiring a JD. That’s 38 percent.

Last year’s combined graduating class for the three school had soared to 1,191 students. Only 428 found full-time long-term JD-required employment. That’s 36 percent.

All of the schools’ websites follow the format of Arizona Summit’s rosier description of employment outcomes:

“Arizona Summit Law School was able to confirm the employment status of 99% (278 out of 279) of its program completers [sic] who graduated September 1, 2012, through August 31, 2013. The job placement rate for these graduates was 90%. This figure was calculated using the NALP formula for calculating job placement rate. Therefore, the 90% job placement rate was calculated by adding together all the employed graduates (250) and then dividing by the number of graduates whose employment status we were able to confirm (278). In accordance with NALP guidelines, the number of employed graduates includes all employment positions, including legal and non-legal positions, permanent and temporary positions, full-time and part-time positions, and any positions funded by Arizona Summit Law School.”

Clicking to another document on the site reveals that 25 of those jobs were “Law School Funded Positions” — 22 of which were short-term.

The Challenge of Leadership

Perhaps it takes an insider, such as former Justice Archer, to accomplish the kind of monumental change that his InfiLaw constituents may well resist. Perhaps this will be a “Nixon goes to China” moment for him and the profession. Maybe it will be the equivalent of President Lyndon Johnson muscling civil rights legislation through the Senate — a Texan overcoming a resistant South in the 1960s.

On the other hand, if the latest ABA task force produces anything less than revolutionary recommendations that finally make law schools financially accountable for the fate of their graduates, everyone will laugh it off — as they should. Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly funny about the situation.

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.