THE CHARLOTTE SCHOOL OF LAW AND A WHISTLEBLOWER

The latest developments at the Charlotte School of Law are the culmination of regulatory capture. The last significant ABA task force addressing the crisis in legal education kicked the can down the road, as did all of its predecessors. That came as no surprise because the head of the task force was Dennis W. Archer. He also chaired the national policy board of InfiLaw, a consortium of Charlotte and two other marginal for-profit law schools owned by venture capitalists.

The Persistent Problem

Without the ability to exploit vulnerable prospective law students willing to incur six-figure law school debt in return for limited prospects of meaningful JD-required jobs, the InfiLaw schools—Charlotte, Arizona Summit, and Florida Coastal School of Law—probably would have gone out of business long ago. It’s a safe bet that InfiLaw’s owners would not send their kids to any of them.

Only recently did the ABA take steps to revoke Charlotte’s accreditation. The school lost access to student loan money, and now its doors are closed. In March 2017, the ABA put Arizona Summit on probation for reasons that included a 25 percent bar exam passage rate for its July 2016 graduates taking the test for the first time. Florida Coastal’s 2016 graduates are faring so poorly in the job market that its end may be in sight: only 36 percent of graduates obtained full-time long-term JD-required jobs. Meanwhile, Florida Coastal grads have the distinction of obtaining degrees from a school that is among the leaders in law school debt: almost $160,000. Arizona Summit’s grads are right up there with them.

For years, InfiLaw has been a poster child for a persistent problem, but it’s not the only offender. Ten years after the Great Recession decimated the demand for new law school graduates, the ABA has ignored a perverse incentive system arising from a dysfunctional market. Specifically, marginal law schools lack accountability for their graduates’ poor job prospects. Those schools live on student loans—which is to say that they would die without them. But once students make their tuition payments, their schools have no skin in the game.

Even Archer’s task force report acknowledged that 25 percent of law schools derive at least 88 percent of their revenues from tuition. The overriding goal becomes maximizing revenues by filling classroom seats with tuition-paying bodies. At most marginal schools, that has meant lowering admission standards–an action that later reflects itself in declining bar passage rates for graduates. The result: unemployed law school graduates are burdened with enormous non-dischargeable debt for degrees of dubious value.

What Will It Take?

Perhaps a Charlotte whistleblower will bring change to a profession that has shown a consistent unwillingness to police itself. The allegations from former Charlotte School of Law Professor Barbara Bernier, who filed suit in June 2016 under the False Claims Act, prompted a federal investigation. She alleges that the school defrauded taxpayers of more than $285 million over a five-year period. According to the suit, Charlotte used dubious tactics to shore up the school’s performance numbers, protect its accreditation, and keep federal student loan dollars flowing.

Bernier claims that admissions officers had quotas of students they had to accept to keep their jobs. She alleges that over a six-year period beginning in 2010, 1,355 substandard students were enrolled, resulting in improper government payments to the school totaling $285 million. She asserts that the school discouraged some students from taking the bar exam because it thought they were likely to fail. Even so, the school’s pass rate has dropped steadily and its February 2017 results were the worst in the state: 25 percent. For those repeating the exam, the February 2017 news was worse: 18 percent passed.

How could this happen? A better question is, why wouldn’t it? Bernier’s allegations are consistent with revenue-maximizing behavior that the current law school business model incentivizes without regard to graduates’ outcomes.

“At Charlotte, there was constant talk of investors — referring to the school’s owners,” the Charlotte School of Law whistleblower professor told The New York Times, “and the focus was on the number of students. They were bringing them in and setting them up and then failing them out.”

InfiLaw has until Oct. 20 to file a formal answer to the complaint. Perhaps someday its owners and those who run other marginal law schools across the country will answer to their students who leave such institutions with big debt and limited JD-required job prospects. Every year, the ranks of those alumni grow.

TRUMP AND BETSY DEVOS DELIVER A ONE-TWO PUNCH

Since 2007, the federal student loan forgiveness (PSLF) program has been an escape hatch for law graduates (and others) saddled with overwhelming educational debt. The idea was that the graduate would take a public service job at low pay and reduced monthly loan requirements. After ten years of service, any remaining loan debt was forgiven. The well-known backstory is that student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. They can follow a person to the grave.

There were and still are problems with PSLF, such as the resulting tax on the imputed income from the forgiven loan. And 10 years is a long time to toil in low wage positions. But the country and many recent graduates have been the better for it.

New Problems

Serious administrative issues surfaced when the ABA sued the Department of Education for retroactive denials to lawyers who thought they were employed in qualifying PSLF programs. After original approval, the suit alleged, the department then reneged and said, in effect, “No soup for you.”

According to one report, “The ABA, which views the program as an essential part of its recruiting and retention efforts, was only informed that it was no longer an eligible employer for PSLF purposes earlier this year – nine years into a 10 year program. The association has lost employees who were in the program and has been told by possible hires that the loss of qualification was an important factor in not joining the ABA.”

Problems Solved, Trump-Style

For young lawyers hoping that public service loan forgiveness was the answer to a lifetime of student debt burdens, Trump has some bad news. Rather than remedy the problems with a program that can provide enormous help to many recent grads and the organizations for which they work, he wants to eliminate it altogether. It’s analogous to his approach to the Affordable Care Act. Fixing something is more difficult than eliminating it altogether. So Trump proposes to eliminate it.

Amid the attention surrounding Trump’s scandals involving Russia, obstruction of justice, and business conflicts of interest, many important stories got lost. What’s happening in the U.S Department of Education is one of them. On May 17, The Washington Post reported, “Funding for college work-study programs would be cut in half, public-service loan forgiveness would end and hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools could use for mental health, advanced coursework and other services would vanish under a Trump administration plan to cut $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives.”

Why? Because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ lifelong mission has been to promote private and religious schools. According the Post story, she seeks to put $400 million into expanding “charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools, and another $1 billion to push public schools to adopt choice-friendly policies.”

Who’s Affected?

By the end of 2016, 550,00 people had been approved for the federal loan forgiveness program. The first beneficiaries of the program will receive their rewards this year. If Trump and DeVos have their way, they will become the vanguard of a dying breed. Trump and DeVos are not just throwing out the baby with the bathwater; they’re ripping out the tub and all of the plumbing, too.

JERRY FALWELL JR.’S NEW ASSIGNMENT

Since his inauguration, Donald Trump has dominated news cycles with chaos. It was easy to miss his new task force charged with deregulating higher education. The leader is Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University.

“The goal is to pare it back and give colleges and their accrediting agencies more leeway in governing their affairs,” said Falwell, an evangelical leader with a law degree.

Heaven help us all.

Liberty University

Falwell’s father founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. It thrives on federal student loan and grant dollars — $347 million for undergraduates alone in 2015, according to The New York Times. Liberty’s nominal student loan default rate within three years of graduation is nine percent. But only 38 percent of Liberty borrowers are paying down at least one dollar on their student loan principal amounts within three years of leaving the school. The Times also reports that six years after entering college, 41 percent of Liberty students earn less than $25,000 a year. That’s about what a typical 25-year-old with only a high school diploma earns.

For years, law schools have been the leading edge of this crisis. Falwell’s Liberty University has one of those, too. Tuition is $32,000 a year. Twenty percent of first-year students entering in 2014 left for academic reasons. Of 61 students who graduated in 2015, only half got full-time long-term jobs requiring a J.D. —  including one graduate who went to work for Liberty. There was some relatively good news: the average debt load for Liberty’s class of 2015 students who borrowed for law school was $68,000 — a lot lower than the $112,000 average for all law schools.

Reversal of Fortune 

Any progress that the Obama administration made to increase accountability in higher education seems destined for Trump’s dustbin. The Department of Education had put heat on schools that were exploiting students who incurred enormous educational debt for degrees of dubious value. Last summer, one of the department’s advisory committees took the American Bar Association to task for allowing law schools to run such scams. In November, the ABA put Charlotte Law School on probation while the school tried to work out its problems. In December, Charlotte lost its eligibility for federal student loans and its death spiral accelerated.

At long last, someone noticed that federal money was allowing bottom-feeder law schools to stay in business. But the legal profession’s accrediting agency – the types of organizations that Falwell says he wants to vest with greater decision-making power – hadn’t pulled the trigger on Charlotte. The DOE had.

President Obama also moved the vast majority of student lending from the private sector to the federal government. The expectation is that Trump will move it back. Since the election, the stock prices of private student lenders and loan servicing companies have soared. They’re a good bet. Federal guarantees protect lenders; borrowers can’t discharge educational debt in bankruptcy.

The end result is that marginal schools still have no financial skin in the game. They keep filling classrooms with students who borrow huge sums for degrees that aren’t worth it. Income-based repayment programs may provide some relief, but eventually someone will figure out that the U.S. Treasury will wind up footing that bill, which could become a very big number. When loan forgiveness programs shrink or disappear, an entire generation will live — and, in many cases, die — with educational debt incurred to pay the big salaries of people like Jerry Falwell, Jr.

How much damage could Falwell’s task force do? Plenty. The ABA is institutionally incapable of cracking down on law schools that should have closed long ago or never opened at all. Watch out for this: If the federal student loan spigot reopens for Charlotte Law School, there’s no bottom in sight.

What Would Jesus Do?

Jerry Falwell, Jr. was an anchor of Trump’s evangelical constituency. As president of Liberty, he earns $900,000 a year. In fact, Falwell said Trump offered him the Secretary of Education position that DeVos now occupies, but he turned it down. Trump wanted a four-to-six year commitment; Falwell reportedly said he couldn’t afford to work at a cabinet-level job for more than two years.

As Falwell and others like him prosper, their students suffer. Now that Falwell is in charge of deregulating higher education, Trump’s victory speech after winning the Nevada primary last year takes on new meaning: “We won the evangelicals… We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

I suspect Jerry Falwell, Jr. loves the poorly educated, too. When it comes to selling a dubious degree from a marginal school, they’re especially inviting targets.

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ATTORNEY GENERAL? — PART 1

Last week, I discussed Trump’s threats to sue his critics and the possibility that, when it came actually to filing a lawsuit, his lawyers’ overriding duties of professional responsibility became a restraining influence. Even so, the threats themselves — like those Trump reiterated on October 22 to sue any and all accusers who have or will come forward to confirm his boasts about being a sexual predator — have a chilling impact. If an accuser with a truthful story remains quiet, Trump wins without firing a shot or paying a filing fee.

Anyone who doubts the effect of even an idle Trump threat should consider the American Bar Association’s recent actions. The New York Times reports:

“Alarmed by Donald J. Trump’s record of filing lawsuits to punish and silence his critics, a committee of media lawyers at the American Bar Association commissioned a report on Mr. Trump’s litigation history. The report concluded that Mr. Trump was a ‘libel bully’ who had filed many meritless suits attacking his opponents and had never won in court. But the bar association refused to publish the report, citing ‘the risk of the A.B.A. being sued by Mr. Trump.'”

The Media Law Research Center posted the report.

If candidate Trump can achieve that type of chilling effect on the nation’s largest professional association of attorneys, imagine the impact of a President Trump who would select the country’s top law enforcement officer, namely, the attorney general of the United States.

Even Worse Threats

“You’d be in jail.”

Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton to deliver that warning during their second debate. Moments earlier, he’d provided the context.

“If I win,” he said, “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.”

As Trump landed another blow against the rule of law, his supporters in the audience howled, “Lock her up” — a standard chant at Trump rallies.

The Gambit

The process for appointing a special counsel doesn’t give any president the power Trump says he’d wield. The last president to have any influence over a special prosecutor was Richard Nixon. Esteemed Harvard Law Professor Archibald Cox had the job, and it didn’t end well for Nixon or the country.

When Cox subpoenaed the president’s Oval Office tape recordings, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him. Richardson refused, so Nixon fired Richardson. When his successor, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, likewise refused to discharge Cox, Nixon fired him, too. After Solicitor General Robert Bork was sworn in to replace Ruckelshaus, he executed Nixon’s command.

Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release the tapes. Nixon’s own voice proved his personal involvement in efforts to cover-up the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters – the Watergate break-in. The incriminating evidence led the House of Representatives to issue articles of impeachment. When it became clear that fellow Republicans in the Senate would provide enough votes to convict him, Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign his office.

The “Saturday Night Massacre” that cost Richardson, Ruckelshaus, and Cox their jobs led Congress to enact the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 that removed the president from the independent prosecutor process. In 1999, the legislation lapsed under a sunset provision. Today, the Code of Federal Regulations – which has the force of law – governs. The decision to appoint a “special counsel” to conduct investigations or prosecutions of particular matters on behalf of the United States belongs to the attorney general, not the president.

The Executioner

Nixon’s appointees, Richardson and Ruckelshaus, lost their jobs because they refused to do Nixon’s bidding. Trump’s attorney general would have to embrace his illegal post-election assault on a political adversary. To fulfill his banana republic-like promise to imprison a political opponent, Trump would need someone who bowed unquestioningly to his wishes.

Who might use the power of high office for such retribution? There’s an obvious candidate: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After all, at the Republican National Convention, he prosecuted the case against Hillary Clinton and invited the audience to roar, “Guilty.”

As for a willingness to use political power for payback, Trump has a favorable view of Christie, too.

“He knew about it,” Trump said during a Republican presidential primary rally in December 2015. “He totally knew about it.”

During a December 2013 news conference, Christie had staked out a different position: “I didn’t know anything about it.”

The “he” was Christie. The “it” was Bridgegate.

The Scandal

On September 9, 2013 – the first day of the school year in Fort Lee, New Jersey – commuters to New York City found themselves in a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. Without advance notice to local officials, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reduced from three to one the number of lanes and tollbooths available to vehicles accessing the bridge from Fort Lee.

Even by New York standards, the resulting gridlock on the world’s busiest bridge was monumental. Some motorists were stranded for hours. Public health and safety became serious concerns. Was it just a coincidence that the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee had refused to endorse Christie for a second term as governor?

As the debacle developed, what did Governor Christie know and when did he know it? Senator Howard Baker had made a similar question famous during the Watergate hearings, and it still resonated.

The next installment in this series will take a deeper dive into the criminal trial that has inflicted significant collateral damage on Christie — the head of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team.

THE ABA’S TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY

It’s a mere formality. Every five years, the Department of Education renews the ABA’s power to accredit law schools. The June 2016 session before a DOE advisory committee (NACIQI) was supposed to be just another step in the rubber-stamping process. The NACIQI staff had recommended approval. The committee’s three-day session contemplated action on a dozen other accrediting bodies, ranging from the American Psychological Association to the American Theological Schools. Sandwiched between acupuncture and health education, the agenda contemplated an hour for the ABA.

What could go wrong?

For starters, committee members grilled the ABA’s representatives for an entire afternoon.

Questions About Law Student Debt?

First up for the ABA was the chair of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Rebecca White Berch. A committee member asked how the ABA assessed schools based on the interrelationship between student debt, bar passage rate, and graduate placement rates. Justice Berch said the ABA was looking “for a bar passing rate of 75 percent…. [W]as that part of your question?”

Actually, that was just a proposal set for an ABA Section hearing on August 6, but it wasn’t what the NACIQI had in mind.

NACIQI Member: “Sorry, no. I think my question also went to concern related to debt that students incurred while in law school and relationship of that to placement.”

ABA Managing Director Barry Currier tried to field that one:

“With respect to debt, we have been following a disclosure model for a number of years now and a lot of information is disclosed… [W]e collect information about student borrowing, but it is currently not part of the consumer information that schools are required to post with us… [T]here is no standard about how much debt is too much debt at this point in time.”

Let the squirming begin.

“So it may be,” Currier continued, “that as evidence mounts that students don’t shop very effectively and that as uncapped student loans are available, that we need to be more paternalistic, if you will, or more — we may need to make more information required and adopt standards around how much debt is too much debt.”

Placement Rates?

NACIQI: “What would be an appropriate placement rate for a law school?”

Currier: “Well our standards do not require any specific employment…[W]e don’t have a specific standard that a school must achieve in terms of placement.”

NACIQI: “But you are the ones who identified that legal education is very expensive… And if they can’t find a job it wrecks their lives.”

NACIQI: “[Y]ou can tell a lot from some of these low performing schools. And a school that sticks out to me is Whittier Law School in California… [T]he enrollment has dropped 51 percent since 2010, yet tuition has increased 31 percent since 2008.”

He wasn’t finished.

“Over 105 million dollars of Title IV funding has gone into this school. All the while, one in four graduates of this law school has obtained a full-time attorney job within nine months… Appalachian School of Law, University of LaVerne, Golden Gate, all have abysmal placement rates… [S]o I guess my question is specifically related to these low performing institutions: what are you guys doing?”

Then he answered his own question:

“[W]hen we look at these low performing schools, you guys are doing absolutely nothing.”

Can We Talk About Something Else?

Justice Berch’s attempt to change the subject was unavailing.

NACIQI: “We are talking about student debt, right, so — I guess you are not answering my question, and so I would like for us to stay on that… I just want to make sure we are talking about what is your responsibility and your response to these lower performing schools. I mean, have they been put on probation? That’s my first question.”

Justice Berch: You make a valid point. The answer is — has anyone yet been put on probation? No…”

NACIQI: “How many institutions have you denied accreditation to for low pass rates?

Justice Berch: For low pass rates alone, none.”

NACIQI: “Over the past five years how many institutions have you withdrawn your accreditation from?”

Currier: “Zero, zero.”

You Think The ABA Can’t Do The Job?

During the NACIQI’s discussion on the motion to recommend renewal of the ABA’s accreditation power, one member put the problem bluntly:

“I am troubled that the ABA just simply isn’t independent enough for this responsibility… I find it very difficult to think that they are going to be objective enough to continue to carry out this responsibility. And I reluctantly conclude that the ABA is not the appropriate accreditor for our law schools…[T]he crushing debt load on thousands and thousands of students is too serious for us… And I think the debt load is not going to get better if we say yes to this motion.”

Another member added: “I think that objectivity is important as you go through this process, so I would think an independent body that does not have the conflict of interest that the ABA has.”

It’s Worse Than They Thought

The NACIQI didn’t consider a recent illustration of the ABA’s independence problems. Former ABA President Dennis Archer is chairman of the national policy board of Infilaw — a consortium of three for-profit law schools. At those schools — Arizona Summit, Florida Coastal, and the Charlotte School of Law — students graduate with six-figure debt and dismal prospects for a meaningful job requiring bar passage. (Full-time long-term JD-required job placement rate ten months after 2015 graduation: Arizona Summit — 40 percent; Florida Coastal — 39 percent; Charlotte — 26 percent.)

On November 18, 2013, Archer and Infilaw’s chief executive officer co-signed a seven-page tour de force warning the DOE about the perils of applying the “Gainful Employment Rule” to “proprietary law schools and first professional degree schools in general.” The letter (on Infilaw stationery) argued, among other things, that the proposed rule was unnecessary because the ABA — as an accrediting body — ensures that InfiLaw “must offer an education that will help students achieve their goals.”

Six months later, Archer became chairman of the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing Legal Education. A year later — June 2015 — the Task Force acknowledged that 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their revenues from tuition. But it refused to recommend an obvious remedy: financial penalties for schools where students incur massive law school debt in exchange for dismal long-term JD-required job prospects.

The Task Force’s recommendations were embarrassingly inadequate, but the ABA House of Delegates accepted them.

One More Chance?

The ABA’s culture of self-interest and insularity has now created a bigger mess. Some NACIQI members favored the “nuclear” option: recommending denial of the ABA’s accrediting authority altogether. The committee opted to send a “clear message” through less draconian means.

The final recommendation was to give the ABA a 12-month period during which it would have no power to accredit new law schools. Thereafter, the ABA would report its progress in addressing the committee’s concerns, including the massive debt that students are incurring at law schools with poor JD-required placement rates.

As one member put it, “It is great to collect data, but they don’t have any standard on placement. What’s the point of collecting data if you can’t…use the data to help the students and protect the students…”

Another member summarized the committee’s view of the ABA: “This feels like an Agency that is out of step with a crisis in its profession, out of step with the changes in higher ed, and out of step with the plight of the students that are going through the law schools.”

The day of reckoning may not be at hand, but it’s getting closer.

ABOUT THAT LAWYER SHORTAGE…

Facts are stubborn things — almost as stubborn as persistent academic predictions that boom times for attorneys are just around the corner.

Back in 2013, Professor Ted Seto at Loyola Law School-Los Angeles observed, “Unless something truly extraordinary has happened to non-cyclical demand, a degrees-awarded-per-capita analysis suggests that beginning in fall 2015 and intensifying into 2016 employers are likely to experience an undersupply of law grads, provided that the economic recovery continues.”

In November 2014 after the Bureau of Labor Statistics proposed a new and deeply flawed methodology for measuring attorney employment, Professor Seto weighed in again: “If the new BLS projections are accurate, we should see demand and supply in relative equilibrium in 2015 and a significant excess of demand over supply beginning in 2016.” His school’s full-time long-term bar passage employment rate for the class of 2015 was 62 percent — slightly better than the overall mean and median for all law schools, which are just under 60 percent.

Likewise in 2014, Professor Rene Reich-Graefe at Western New England University School of Law used what he described as “hard data” to argue, “[C]urrent and future law students are standing at the threshold of the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country.” The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics published his dubious analysis leading to that prediction. Within ten months of graduation, only 43 percent of 2015 graduates from Professor Reich-Graefe’s school found full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage.

Fact-sayers v. Self-interested Soothsayers

To his credit, Professor Jerry Organ at the University of St. Thomas School of Law has been fearless in challenging the relentless optimism of his academic colleagues. And he does it with the most persuasive of lawyerly approaches: using facts and evidence.

Analyzing the ABA’s recently released law school employment reports for all fully-accredited law schools, Professor Organ notes that the number of graduates dropped in 2015. But for the second straight year, so did the number of full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage.

Professor Organ offers a number of explanations for this result: declining bar passage rates; regional factors that reduced hiring in Texas and elsewhere; the impact of technology. But whatever the reasons, he suggests, “[T]his employment outcomes data provides a cautionary tale.”

Proceeding Without Caution

“The fact that the employment market for law school graduates appears to have stagnated and even declined to some extent over the last two years,” Professor Organ continues, “may mean that risk averse potential law school applicants who focus on post-graduate employment opportunities when assessing whether to invest in a legal education may remain skittish about applying, such that this year’s good news on the applicant front may be somewhat short-lived.”

The “good news on the applicant front” to which Professor Organ refers is his projection that applications for the fall 2016 entering class are on track to increase for the first time since 2010. But he offers a cautionary note there as well. Law schools at the upper end “will see more enrollment growth and profile stability in comparison with law schools further down the rankings continuum.”

Perilous Predictions

Some prognostications are safer than others. Here’s mine: Faculty and administration at weak law schools will continue using the overall decline in the number of all applicants to persist in their misleading sales pitches that now is a “Great Time to Go to Any Law School.” They will discourage inquiry into more relevant facts.

But here they are: At the 90th percentile of all 204 ABA-accredited law schools, the full-time long-term bar passage-required employment rate for 2015 graduates was just under 80 percent. At the 75th percentile, it was 67 percent. But at the 25th percentile, it was 49 percent. And at the 10th percentile, it was only 39 percent.

It will always be a great time to go to some law schools. It will never be a great time to go to others.

LSAT v. GRE – RHETORIC v. REALITY

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, 2016) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — is now available at Amazon.]

The Wall Street Journal reports that the University of Arizona College of Law has begun accepting GRE scores in lieu of LSATs. Two other schools — the University of Hawaii and Wake Forest — are performing validation studies to determine whether they, too, should make the move to GREs.

At Arizona, Dean Marc Miller said, “This isn’t an effort to declare war on anybody. This is an effort to fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession.”

To “fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession,” accepting GRE scores instead of LSATs seems like a misfire. Beyond the rhetoric is a reality that might reveal what else could be going on.

The GRE Is Easier

According to the executive director of prelaw programs at Kaplan Test Prep, Jeff Thomas, “The GRE is regarded as the easier test. The entirety of the LSAT was meant to mimic the law-school experience, while the GRE was not created for that particular purpose.”

But the fact that the GRE is easier doesn’t explain why some law schools want to use it. Self-interest and U.S. News rankings might.

LSATs Are Telling a Sad Story 

As LSAT scores of entering classes have dropped at many schools, so have bar passage rates. According to the University of Arizona School of Law’s ABA Reports, its median LSAT for matriculants in 2012 was 161. For 2015, it was 160. That’s not much of a decline, but at the 25th percentile, the LSAT score went from 159 to 155.

According to the school’s website, in July 2013, 92 percent of first-time test takers passed the Arizona bar exam. In July 2015, the passage rate was 84 percent.

The GRE Isn’t the LSAT

Such trends suggest another possible reason for allowing students to substitute the GRE for the LSAT: It buys law schools time and complicates prelaw student decision-making. At many schools, year-over-year LSAT score comparisons have documented the willingness of many deans to accept marginal students. The easiest way to stop such time series analyses is to make that test optional.

The GRE will be a new data point. Until schools report those scores for two or three years, it won’t reveal trends in admitted student qualifications. That will deflect attention away from the “declining quality of admitted students” narrative that has become pervasive. Never mind that the narrative is pervasive because, based on LSATs and undergraduate GPAs for matriculants at many schools, it’s true. (Between 2012 and 2015, the University of Arizona School of Law’s undergraduate GPA for matriculants dropped at all three measuring points — the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles, according to its ABA reports for those years.)

The Heavy Hand of U.S. News rankings

In addition to confusing the story on the declining quality of applicants, law schools have another reason to accept the GRE. Applicants will take both exams and pick the better result for law school consumption. It’s analogous to the current ABA rule allowing schools to use only a student’s highest LSAT score.

Prelaw students who do badly on the LSAT will submit the GRE score instead. The ongoing self-selection of poor LSAT scores away from the applicant pool will increase the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile LSAT values for the scores that remain. Until all schools adopt the GRE option, it will help the U.S. News rankings of the schools that do it.

There’s precedent for such behavior. Most high school students take the SAT and the ACT. Where a college allows either score, students submit the higher one.

Look Beyond the Rhetoric

Trends at the two other schools mentioned in the WSJ article might be relevant to all of this. At the University of Hawaii, compare the 2012 and 2015 ABA forms reporting LSATs for matriculants:

75th percentile: 2012 – 160; 2015 – 158

50th percentile: 2012 – 158; 2015 – 154

25th percentile: 2012 – 154; 2015 – 151

Likewise, at Wake Forest the results are:

75th percentile: 2012 – 165; 2015 – 162

50th percentile: 2012 – 163; 2015 – 161

25th percentile: 2012 – 159; 2015 – 157

At this point, the appropriate legal phrase is res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself.

The ABA is planning to determine independently whether the GRE meets its accreditation requirement allowing schools to use the LSAT or another “valid and reliable” test when making admissions decisions. The profession’s leading organization is likely to approve the switch. That’s because doing so will perpetuate what has become the ABA’s central mission in legal education: protecting many law schools from scrutiny and meaningful accountability.

That’s about as far as you can get from trying “to fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession.”