LEARNING FOUR LESSONS FROM FAILURE

On October 2, 2015, Northwestern University ended a six-year experiment — the two-year accelerated JD. Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez deserves credit for pulling the plug. Now comes the important part: learning the right lessons from failure.

Lesson #1: Beware of Public Relations Hype

With much fanfare in June 2008, Dean Rodriguez’s predecessor, David Van Zandt, released a document outlining his new long-range strategic vision: “Plan 2008: Preparing Great Leaders for a Changing World.” The centerpiece was an accelerated JD program whereby the school jammed three academic years of ABA-required curriculum into two calendar years.

Van Zandt worked tirelessly to sell the program. From local talk show appearances to speeches at law schools, he never let up. But one of his stated goals should have generated concern. Even as the market for lawyers plummeted, his keynote address at a February 2009 Southwestern Law Review symposium explained that he hoped to “tap a different population of students to expand our pool of potential applicants.” In particular, he wanted to “reach those who were planning on going to MBA programs.”

In other words, he offered a prescription for what the profession needed least: more law students who had been on their way to business school until the prospect of a Northwestern accelerated JD appeared.

Lesson #2: Dig Deeper

A program that “accelerated” a student through law school in two years instead of three sounded like an unambiguously good idea. But beyond the superficial appeal were troubling realities.

Students in the program started with a Web-based course even before they arrived on campus. In May, they began full-time study. In the fall, they joined first-year students in the traditional three-year program while also adding an extra course. For anyone on the two-year accelerated path, an already precious commodity — time during the first year to integrate experiences while contemplating one’s place in a diverse, challenging and changing profession — disappeared.

Even worse, Northwestern missed an opportunity. Total tuition for the two-year program was the same as that for the three-year degree. Accelerated students just paid more in tuition each semester. According to Van Zandt, students still benefitted financially because they could enter the job market sooner. Never mind how dismal that market remained.

Lesson #3: Ignore the Spin 

Many deans claim to be remaking their schools in ways that respond to the current crisis in legal education. For the sake of the profession, let’s hope that’s true. (But see Lesson #1 above.)

Even so, cramming three years of legal education into two was never particularly creative or innovative. For example, Southwestern Law School started its accelerated JD program in 1974. (Southwestern also has dismal full-time long-term JD-required employment rates for recent graduates.)

After leaving the deanship to become president of the New School in 2010, Van Zandt continued his defense of the Northwestern AJD in an online July 25, 2011 New York Times op-ed. In the process, he earned one of my “Unfortunate Comment Awards.” That was four years ago.

Lesson #4: Beware of Motivated Reasoning

Van Zandt spoke often about the importance of markets and market-based decisions. But it took six years (and a new dean) before Northwestern responded to what the markets were telling it about the AJD. As Dean Rodriguez announced on October 2, the program failed to achieve its aspirational target of 40 AJD students per year (Van Zandt had hoped eventually to enroll 65 AJD students annually):

“[D]ealing with this smaller program,” he said, “has impacted our ability to serve the objectives and needs of all our law students.”

As schools pursue various efforts to reduce the cost and improve the content of legal education, perhaps they’ll learn one more lesson: Don’t wait years to admit a mistake.

COMMENDABLE CONDUCT AWARD

Regular readers know that I’m often critical of many law school deans. But when one of them gets it right, let’s give credit where it’s due. As the glut of new attorneys persists, the University of Kansas School of Law Dean Stephen Mazza became the latest dean to announce significant reductions in incoming class size. With that action, he has earned a “Commendable Conduct Award.”

Not the first

The University of Kansas isn’t the first to implement such cuts. Last year, Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings School of Law announced a 20 percent reduction in class size for the fall of 2012.

“The critics of legal education are right,” Wu said. “There are far too many law schools and there are too many law students and we need to do something about that.”

George Washington University, Albany Law School, Creighton University School of Law, and Loyola University Chicago School of Law have reduced entering class size, too. In March, Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel Rodriguez said his school would reduce the fall 2013 class by 10 percent. “We can’t ignore the destabilizing forces that the legal industry is facing today,” he said.

KU deserves special praise

All of these efforts to reduce the size of entering classes are commendable. But there are several unique aspects to the University of Kansas announcement that make it especially noteworthy.

First, the reduction as a percentage of enrollment in prior years is large: from 175 students graduating this year to a target of 120 students for the 2013 entering class and for the foreseeable future.

Equally significant, it appears that KU didn’t have to take its laudable step. The dean said that applications were down only about 10 percent — far less than many other schools. Moreover, an impressive 82 percent of 2012 graduates secured long-term jobs where a JD was required or preferred — far above the national average.

As an added bonus, a KU legal education is a relative bargain compared to many other schools: $18,600 tuition for full-time students who are state residents; $31,500 for out-of-state.

Motivations matter; outcomes matter more

Everyone expects that the decline in the number of law school applicants will produce lower average LSATs and GPAs for the entering 1L class. That, in turn, would hit the selectivity component of a school’s overall U.S. News ranking. It’s possible that some deans have reduced entering class size as part of a strategy to protect their rankings. But if the overall net outcome is that law schools as a group produce fewer lawyers three years from now, then the rankings may have helped to mitigate damage that they have caused since their first appearance in 1987.

Ay, there’s the rub. Will there be fewer total law graduates, or will other schools (and new ones in the pipeline) enroll the students that KU and others don’t accept? Indeed, will some schools expand enrollments solely to increase their tuition revenues? Asking those institutions to consider the long-term well being of the marginal students they recruit, or the sad state of the profession itself, would be asking too much, I guess.

One way to counteract the agendas of deans who refuse to do the right thing is to recognize those who do. Even more important is the task of helping prospective law students make informed decisions before they apply to law school. Over time, perhaps more of them will take advantage of increased transparency to assess realistically their own suitability for a satisfying and successful legal career. But at any age, encounters with confirmation bias are never easy.

Meanwhile, kudos to Dean Stephen Mazza and the University of Kansas School of Law. He’s been dean only since April 2011, but he’s already making a profound difference in the way that matters most — one person at a time. (And thanks to one of my regular readers who brought Dean Mazza’s announcement to my attention.)

TWO YEARS TO WHAT?

It’s no panacea. It may not even be a good idea. But in a recent New York Times op-ed, Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez and NYU law professor Samuel Estreicher endorsed a proposal allowing students to sit for the New York bar exam after only two years of law school:

“[I]t could make law school far more accessible to low-income students, help the next generation of law students avoid a heavy burden of debt and lead to improvements in legal education across the United States.”

The state’s top judge told a gathering of “legal educators, practitioners and judges that the concept deserves serious study,” according to the National Law Journal.

Sorting out the facts

If the New York proposal is adopted, what aspects of legal education might change? No one really knows, but the answer may be: less than some people think. That alone doesn’t make it a bad idea, but it could produce unintended consequences, too.

Most students who leave law school after two years will still have staggering debt. The average private law school graduate incurs $125,000 in loans; for public schools, it’s $75,000. Lopping off one-third would help, but it would still leave graduates with significant five-figure burdens.

No degrees

Unfortunately, the current discussion isn’t about eliminating the third year altogether and awarding JD degrees after two years, although it should be. ABA accreditation requirements block that definitive innovation. So do most law schools because many of them couldn’t survive the resulting loss of third-year tuition revenues.

Would a student who has already sunk $100,000 into two years of legal education decide that passing the bar alone was sufficient reward for that investment? Only if the value of the degree itself was worth less than the cost of a third year to get it.

Improving the third year

Finally, even assuming that many students availed themselves of the two-year option, how would most deans respond? In their op-ed, Rodriguez and Estreicher suggest that schools might improve third-year curriculum so that students would stay. But couldn’t schools do that now? Only a handful do.

Perhaps inadvertently, Rodriguez and Estreicher implicitly make the real point: only the threat of losing significant third-year tuition revenues will dramatically change most deans’ behavior. Deans may say that they’re in the business of trying to get students through law school economically, but when they have opportunities to act accordingly, few seem to make the effort. That’s because they’re actually in the business of maximizing their schools’ short-term metrics, including revenues and U.S. News rankings.

The decades-long explosion in tuition costs is one example. Another one appears in the Times op-ed, where Dean Rodriguez identifies his school’s “accelerated program that lets students pursue a three-year course of study in two years, allowing them to take the bar and enter the job market a year earlier.”

Rodriguez doesn’t mention that rushing through in two calendar years (thanks to summer classes and course overloads) won’t save students a penny on their total tuition expense. It’s two years for the price of three because, the school’s website observes, “The Law School prices tuitions based on the degree pursued rather than the length of enrollment.”

In fairness to Dean Rodriquez, he inherited the accelerated JD program and its pricing model from his predecessor, David Van Zandt. Among the program’s stated — and more dubious — goals has been to attract students who otherwise might not have gone to law school at all. Just what the profession has needed, right?

Taking chances with other people’s lives

Given their business models, many law schools seem likely to counteract any loss of third-year tuition revenues with larger entering classes. After all, that adjustment requires less work than improving curriculum, and total applicants overall still exceed the number of available spaces. Moreover, if the two-year option became popular, lowering the price of a legal education by one-third should increase demand, although the profession doesn’t need that, either.

What’s the correct approach to all of these unknown possibilities? According to the NLJ, Verizon’s general counsel Randall Milch urged throwing caution to the wind: “Analysis paralysis is our worst enemy here. If we are going to overanalyze, we’re never going to figure this out. In my opinion, we have to move and see what happens.”

There’s nothing quite like observing a real-life experiment on someone else.