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.

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.

THE CRISIS IN LEGAL EDUCATION IS OVER!

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — will be released on March 8, 2016. That’s just in time to put in proper perspective the latest annual rankings from U.S. News & World Report (law schools in mid-March) and Am Law (big firms on May 1). The paperback is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Now on to today’s post…]

Wishful thinking is never a sound strategy for success.

“I don’t see legal education as being in crisis at all,” said Kellye Testy, the new president of the Association of American Law Schools and dean of the University of Washington Law School. She made the observation on January 5, 2016 — the eve of the nation’s largest gathering of law professors.

Perhaps her declaration made attendees more comfortable. Unfortunately, it’s not true.

The Trend! The Trend!

Law deans and professors cite the dramatic declines in applicants since 2010 as proof of law school market self-correction. Dean Testy echoed that approach: “I think there is a steadying out now after quite a crash in the number of students our schools are admitting….”

Two points about that comment. First, the decline in the number of applicants since 2010 is real, but that year may not be the best baseline from which to measure the significance of the drop in subsequent years. From 2005 to 2008, the number of applicants was already declining — from 99,000 to 83,000. But the Great Recession reversed that downward trend — moving the number back up to 88,000 by 2010 as many undergraduates viewed law school as a place to wait for three years while the economy improved.

Viewed over the entire decade that began in 2005, the “drop” since 2010 was from a temporarily inflated level. If the roughly four percent annual reduction that occurred from 2005 to 2008 had continued without interruption to 2014, the result would have been about 65,000 applicants for the fall of 2014, compared to the actual number of 56,000. That difference of 9,000 applicants doesn’t look like a “crash.”

A More Troubling Trend

Second and more importantly, many law schools solved their reduced applicant pool problem by increasing admission rates. Overall, law schools admitted almost 80 percent of applicants for the fall of 2014. Compare that to 2005 when the admission rate was only 59 percent.

During the same period, the number of applicants dropped by 40,000, but the number of admissions declined by only 12,000. Countering the impact of fewer applicants to keep tuition revenues flowing meant lowering admission standards. The ripple effects are now showing up in declining bar passage rates for first-time takers.

Student Enlightenment Interrupted

Transparency has given students access to data that should produce wiser decisions. Until the current application cycle, better information was contributing to the recent decline in the number of law school applicants. But the relentless promotional efforts of law school faculty and administrators may be interrupting that trend. Compared to last year, the number of applicants is up.

But law schools aren’t solely to blame. Responsibility for persistently dubious decisions also rests on those making them. A December 22 article in The Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Helps Shaky Colleges Cope with Bad Student Loans, includes this unfortunate example:

“Anthony C. Johns, 32 years old, regrets accumulating $40,000 in debt while attending Texas College, a private college in Tyler. He says he graduated in 2007 with an English degree but couldn’t land a full-time job.

“‘I think I applied for everything on CareerBuilder from teaching to banking,’ says Mr. Johns, who has defaulted on his Texas College loans. ‘Default was very embarrassing.’ Since then, he has enrolled in law school and borrowed $30,000 to pay for his first year.'”

The emphasis is mine.

The Biggest Problems Remain

According to LinkedIn, someone named Anthony C. Johns graduated from Texas College in 2007 and is currently a student at the Charlotte School of Law. That’s one of the Infilaw consortium of three for-profit law schools — Charlotte, Arizona Summit, and Florida Coastal. Owned by private equity interests, the Infilaw schools — like many others — survive only because unrestricted federal student loans come with no mechanism that holds schools accountable for graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

Ten months after graduation, Charlotte School of Law’s full-time long-term bar passage-required placement rate for 2014 graduates was 34 percent. The average law school loan debt of its 2014 graduates was $140,000. If Anthony Johns regretted accumulating $40,000 in college debt, wait until he’s taken a retrospective look at law school.

You Be The Judge

Perhaps Dean Testy is right and there is no crisis in legal education. Or perhaps it depends on the definition of crisis and how to measure it. When a problem gets personal, it feels different.

Since 2011 when the ABA first required law schools to report the types of employment their graduates obtained, over 40 percent of all graduates have been unable to find full-time long-term employment requiring bar passage within ten months of receiving their degrees.

Now let’s make those numbers a bit more personal. Saddled with six-figure law school debt, many recent law graduates might consider crisis exactly the right word to describe their situation. Where you stand depends on where you sit.