GAME-CHANGER?

Almost overnight, a persistently sad situation finally has many legal educators squirming. And rightly so.

The problem has been years in the making, as has been the profession’s unwillingness to address it. Federal funding mechanisms have combined with lack of accountability and non-dischargeability in bankruptcy to block the effective operation of market forces in legal education. Well-intentioned policies have gone terribly awry; they actually encourage misbehavior among many law school deans.

As law student debt soared into six-figures, calls for change produced the equivalent of catcalls from the “voice of the profession” — the ABA. Its latest Task Force report on the subject should embarrass anyone associated with it, including the House of Delegates that approved it. As the profession’s echo chamber convinced itself that all was well, hope for meaningful change was leaving the building.

But as it did four years ago, The New York Times has now aimed its spotlight on one of the profession’s dirtiest secrets.

The Paper of Record Speaks

In January 2011, The New York Times’ David Segal wrote a series that exposed the cynical gamesmanship whereby law schools inflated their recent graduates’ employment statistics. Through the deepening Great Recession, the profession still generated 90-plus percent employment rates for recent graduates. How? By counting every short-term, part-time, and non-JD-related job as if it were a position that any law graduate would want. Part-time greeters at Wal-mart, temporary baristas at Starbucks, and associates at Cravath were all the same in the eyes of that metric: employed.

The ugly truth surprised many prospective law students, but not the ABA, which had approved the schools’ misleading reporting methods. It turned out that within nine months of graduation, only about half of all new J.D.-degree holders were obtaining full-time long-term (defined as lasting a year) jobs that required bar passage. Within two years of the Times’ expose’, the ABA succumbed to public embarrassment and required law schools to detail their employment outcomes.

And It Speaks Again…

The overall full-time long-term JD-required employment rate has barely budged since the new age of transparency began, but law school tuition and resulting student debt have outpaced inflation. As applications to law school plummeted, many deans responded by increasing acceptance rates to keep student loan revenues flowing.

So now the focus has shifted from full disclosure to flawed funding, and the Times has entered the field of battle:

— On August 25, it published my op-ed on the law school debt crisis and the ABA”s feeble response. It went viral.

— On October 24, the Times’ lead editorial was “The Law Student Debt Crisis.” It, too, went viral.

— On October 26, the first page of the Times’ business section completed the trifecta with “Study Cites Lower Standards in Law School Admissions.” The article discusses Law School Transparency’s report documenting that bottom-feeder schools are exploiting unqualified applicants.

And Still the Naysayers Resist…

Previous posts discussed two letters-to-the-editor responding to my August 25 Times piece — one from a law professor at Texas A&M; the other from Northeastern’s dean. There’s no need to review them here. The latest Times’ editorial is generating similarly defensive vitriol from some law professors and deans who are determined to defend the indefensible.

For example, Professor Frank Pasquale at the University of Maryland School of Law (where the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for 2014 graduates was 57 percent) fears that the Times’ October 24 op-ed will accelerate privatization:

“Private lenders are sure to be pleased by the editorial,” Pasquale writes at Balkanization. “Law school loans are lucrative for them because of extremely low student loan default rates for law school borrowers… The stage is now set for a bootlegger/baptist coalition: as prohibitionists cut off the flow of federal loans, private lenders line up to take their place.”

But The Naysayers Are Wrong…

Pasquale offers a clever turn of phrase, but his premise is incorrect. The widespread use of deferral and income-based repayment programs means that the default rate is not the most meaningful measure of whether a loan will be repaid. Actual repayment rates are. Depending on the school, repayment rates can be pathetic.

Professor Bill Henderson at Indiana University Maurer School of Law doesn’t share Pasquale’s confidence that private lenders would step into any breach that the loss of federal funds created. Henderson also notes, correctly, that private loans don’t come with deferral and IBR options that have kept nominal default rates low as non-repayment rates have surged:

“[P]rivate lenders would need to be confident that loans would be repaid. That likelihood is going to vary by law school and by law student, raising the cost of lending.”

Precisely correct. As I’ve suggested previously, tying the availability of law school loans to school-specific employment outcomes could allow the market begin exercising its long-denied power to correct the situation. It could also mean big trouble for marginal schools.

How About Holistic?

Pasquale also chides the Times for its narrow-minded approach: “[T]he paper’s biased view of higher education in general is inflecting its take on law schools. We can only hope that policymakers take a more holistic approach.”

How about a holistic approach that permitted educational debtors to discharge their private loans in bankruptcy? In that case, Pasquale’s “stage” would no longer be “set for a bootlegger/baptist coalition” whereby “prohibitionists cut off the flow of federal loans [and] private lenders line up to take their place.” Private lenders wouldn’t rush to make fully dischargeable loans to students seeking to attend marginal schools that offered little prospect of employment generating sufficient income to repay them.

How About A Constructive Suggestion?

Policymakers could revise the federal loan program to tie student funding at a school to that school’s employment outcomes for recent graduates. In fact, it could do that while preserving deferral and IBR programs. Add dischargeability of educational debt in bankruptcy and you have the beginnings of a holistic recipe for hope.

In that respect, Professor Henderson notes: “I have faith that my legal colleagues would do a masterful job solving the problems of higher education.”

Based on the profession’s track record to date, I fear that my friend’s sentiment reflects a triumph of hope over reality. But his key message is right on target: If the profession does not put its own house in order soon, someone else will.

Marginal law schools exploiting market dysfunction may have triggered the current round of scrutiny, but outside interveners will not limit their systemic fixes to the bottom feeders. Deniers of the ongoing crisis can persist in their positions, or they can propose solutions, as I have.

The Times has pulled a loose thread on the entire legal education establishment’s sweater.

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION

Last Sunday, the NY Times asked: Are law schools deceiving prospective students into incurring huge debt for degrees that aren’t worth it?

Of course they are. The U.S. News is an aider and abettor. As the market for new lawyers shrinks, a key statistic in compiling the publication’s infamous rankings is “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation.” Any job qualifies — from joining Cravath to waiting tables. According to the Times, the most recent average for all law schools is 93%. If gaming the system to produce that number doesn’t cause students to ignore the U.S. News’ rankings altogether, nothing will.

My friend, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law Professor Bill Henderson, told the Times that looking at law schools’ self-reported employment numbers made him feel “dirty.” I assume he’s concerned that prospective students rely on that data in deciding whether and where to attend law school. I agree with him.

But an equally telling kick in the head is buried in the lengthy Times article: Most graduates who achieve their initial objectives — starting positions in big firms paying $160,000 salaries — quickly lose the feeling that they’re winners. Certainly, they must be better off than the individuals chronicled in the article. What could be worse than student debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the home?

Try a legal job with grueling hours, boring work, and little prospect of a long-term career. Times reporter David Segal summarized the cliche’: “Law school is a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie.”

These distressing outcomes for students and associates aren’t inevitable. In fact, they’re relatively new phenomena with a common denominator: Business school-type metrics that make short-term pursuit of the bottom line sterile, objective, and laudable. Numbers prove who’s best and they don’t lie.

Law school administrators manipulate employment data because they have ceded their reasoned judgment to mindless ranking criteria. (“[M]illions of dollars [are] riding on students’ decisions about where to go to law school, and that creates real institutional pressures,” says one dean who believes that pandering to U.S. News rankings isn’t gaming the system; it’s making a school better.)

Likewise, today’s dominant large firm culture results from forces that produced the surge in average equity partner income for the Am Law 50 — from $300,000 in 1985 to $1.5 million in 2009. Leveraged pyramids might work for a few at the top; for everyone else — not so much.

The glut of law school applicants, as well as graduates seeking big firm jobs to repay their loans, leaves law school administrators and firm managers with no economic incentive to change their ways. The profession needs visionaries who are willing to resist perpetuating the world in which debt-laden graduates are becoming the 21st century equivalent of indentured servants.

Henderson calls for law school transparency in the form of quality employment statistics. I endorse his request and offer a parallel suggestion: Through their universities’ undergraduate prelaw programs, law schools should warn prospective students about the path ahead before their legal journeys begin.

Some students enter law school expecting to become Atticus Finch or the lead attorneys on Law & Order. Others pursue large firm equity partnerships as a way to riches. Few realize that career dissatisfaction plagues most of the so-called winners who land what they once thought were the big firm jobs of their dreams.

A legal degree can lead to many different careers. The urgency of loan repayment schedules creates a practical reality that pushes most students in big law’s direction. If past is prologue, the vast majority of them will not be happy there. They should know the truth — the whole truth — before they make their first law school tuition payments. Minimizing unwelcome surprises will create a more satisfied profession.

Meanwhile, can we all agree to ignore U.S. News rankings and rely on our own judgments instead of its stupid criteria? Likewise, can big law managers move away from their myopic focus on the current year’s equity partner profits as a definitive culture-determining metric? I didn’t think so.