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.

INFILAW AND THE ABA

After a setback last summer, Inflilaw has flown under the radar in its quest to acquire the Charleston School of Law. Since July 2013, the private equity owners of Infilaw  — a consortium of three for-profit law schools (Florida Coastal, Charlotte, and Arizona Summit (formerly the Phoenix School of Law)) — have been trying to add Charleston to their portfolio.  (For more on Infilaw, see Paul Campos’ recent article in The Atlantic.)

The persistence of Infilaw’s effort alone says something about the situation: There’s money to be made in legal education. Venture capitalists specialize in finding opportunities for above average investment returns. It doesn’t matter to them that the main source of that money is federal student loans. Nor do they care if the vast majority of students who obtain those loans to attend marginal schools are unable find JD-required employment. If there’s a market failure to exploit for profit, they’re on it.

On November 6, 2014, the ABA Accreditation Committee issued its recommendation of acquiescence — yes, that’s what it’s called — in connection with Infilaw’s proposed acquisition. It found that the desired change in control “will not detract from [Charleston School of Law’s] ability to remain in compliance” with ABA accreditation standards.

The Deal

The ABA recommendation identifies key aspects of the proposed acquisition, but then ignores their implications. For example, under the Asset Purchase Agreement, Infilaw would acquire most of the school’s assets, but it makes no promise of post-acquisition employment for any existing employees. None. Only on the “eve of closing” will Infilaw disclose the faculty members it wants to keep. Nevertheless, the ABA is willing to accept on faith that this pig in a poke — whatever it turns out to be — won’t “detract from the school’s ability” to retain its accreditation.

Under a separate Administrative and Consulting Services Agreement, Infilaw will receive “substantial consideration” to provide “non-academic, administrative, and consulting services” to the law school. Those services probably account for these troubling lines in the ABA committee’s recommendation:

“Infilaw contemplates that…the legal market permitting, it will increase the size of entering classes to approximately 250, or ‘pre-downturn levels.’…The law school will have access to and benefit from the collective knowledge of Infilaw and its three existing law schools with respect to student recruiting and enrollment.”

The Market?

What does “the legal market permitting” mean? Charleston enrolled 145 full-time students for its expected graduating class of 2017. Returning to “pre-downturn” levels would increase that number by 75 percent. Such near-term growth in demand for the school’s new lawyers is a pipe dream. The recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report on legal sector employment confirms painful reality: Over the past year, the number of all legal jobs — not just lawyers — is actually 1,300 lower than a year ago.

But “access to and benefit from” Infilaw’s existing three schools “with respect to student recruiting and enrollment” means law school behavior that has little to do with actual “legal market” employment conditions for new graduates. Rather, as I’ve discussed previously, the current operation of the Inflilaw business model makes the future of Charleston as an Infilaw holding apparent.

A Race To…The Bottom?

The Infilaw model depends on federal student loans to produce revenue streams that create profits for investors. As the demand for lawyers languished during the Great Recession, Infilaw schools increased enrollment and tuition.

Meanwhile, North Carolina bar passage rates for first-time takers graduating from Infilaw’s Charlotte School of Law dropped from 87 percent in July 2010 to 58 percent in July 2013. The school placed seventh (out of seven NC schools) in its July 2014 bar passage rate: 56 percentFlorida Coastal’s first-time rate dropped from 75 percent in July 2012 to 67 percent in July 2013. Its first-time Florida bar passage rate in July 2014 was 58 percent (10th out of 11 Florida schools). Arizona Summit’s first-time bar pass rate in its home state for July 2014 was 55 percent (third out of three Arizona schools).

Overall, only 35 percent of 2013 graduates from Infilaw schools found full-time long-term JD-required employment. By comparison, 53 percent of Charleston School of Law  graduates from the class of 2013 secured full-time long-term JD-required jobs — just below the national average for all law schools.

A Statistic On The Rise

At Florida Coastal, average student loan debt for 2014 graduates was $175,274. The other two Infilaw schools haven’t updated their websites to provide 2014 information. For 2013 graduates of Arizona Summit, average student law school debt was $184,825. At Charlotte, it was $155,697, plus another $20,000 in private student loans. (Average law school debt for Charleston graduates in 2013 was also too high ($146,595). But its 2013 employment outcomes were much better than any Infilaw school.)

Infliaw isn’t home free in its quest. After a closed session of the Accreditation Committee on December 5 in Puerto Rico, the recommendation will go to the ABA’s Council of the Section on Legal Education and Admissions. Then the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education has to approve the deal. Last summer, a committee of that commission voted 3-to-1 against, prompting Infilaw to withdraw its application while promising a return bout that will probably occur in early 2015.

The ABA

People sometimes ask where the ABA has been in the ongoing search for solutions to the current crisis involving law schools whose graduates are incurring staggering debt for JD degrees of dubious value. The answer is becoming clearer.

It’s “acquiescing.”

But wait. The ABA has done one more thing. It has convened a special Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education to recommend fixes for a dysfunctional legal education market. Former Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer, the chairman of Infilaw’s National Policy Board, is still chairman of that Task Force. In 2003-2004, he was president of the ABA.

STUDENT LOANS, MORAL HAZARD, AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS – CONCLUSION

My most recent post in this series discussed manifestations of law school moral hazard at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and Quinnipiac Law School. Both institutions have spent millions of dollars on flashy new buildings where attentive students will have a tough time getting jobs requiring the expensive JDs they are pursuing.

The series now concludes with two more schools that illustrate another dimension of the dysfunctional law school market. Recent graduates of Golden Gate University School of Law and Florida Coastal School of Law live in the worst of two worlds: Their schools have unusually low full-time long-term JD-required employment rates and unusually high average law student debt.

Muddy Disclosure

The recent decline in the number of law school applicants has resulted in many schools struggling to fill their classrooms. When a school depends on the continuing flow of student loan-funded revenues, the pressure to bring in bodies can be formidable. One consequence is especially unseemly for a noble profession: dubious marketing tactics.

By now, most people are aware of ABA rule changes that require each school to disclose in some detail its recent graduates’ employment results, specifically, whether jobs are full-time, part-time, short-term, long-term, or JD-required. But those requirements don’t prevent Golden Gate University School of Law’s “Employment Statistics Snapshot” page from touting this aggregate statistic for its 2013 graduates “85.4 percent were employed in jobs that required bar passage…or where a JD provided an advantage.”

The school’s “ABA employment summary” link appears on the same page. But Golden Gate has supposedly made things easier for prospective students by showing its 2013 graduates’ employment results in a large pie chart. According to that chart, nine months after graduation, 38.2 percent of the school’s 2013 graduates had JD-required jobs.

Here’s what the chart doesn’t reveal: Even that unimpressive total (38.2 percent) includes part-time and short-term positions. Golden Gate’s full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for 2013 graduates was 23 percent.

Money to be Made

I’ve written previously about Florida Coastal, one of the InfiLaw system of private, for-profit law schools. Florida Coastal’s website includes all employment outcomes — legal, non-legal, full-time, part-time, long-term, short-term, and a large number of law school-funded jobs — to arrive at its “job placement rate” of 74.3 percent for its 2012 graduates. That number appears on the program overview pages of the school’s website. But you have to dig deeper — and move into the “Professional Development” section — to learn the more recent and relevant data: The overall employment rate dropped to 62 percent for the class of 2013.

However, those overall rates aren’t even the numbers that matter. Anyone persevering to the school’s ABA-mandated employment disclosure summary finds that the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for Florida Coastal’s 2013 graduates was 31 percent.

The Cost of Market Dysfunction

At Golden Gate, tuition and fees have increased from $26,000 in 2006 to more than $43,000 today. During the same period, Florida Coastal increased its tuition and fees from $23,000 to more than $40,000. That’s why Florida Coastal and Golden Gate rank so high in average law school loan debt for 2013 graduates, with $150,360 and $144,269, respectively.

To its credit, Florida Coastal eliminates any doubt about the trajectory of law school debt for its future students. The median debt for its 2014 graduates rose to more than $175,000 — all of it consisting of federal student loans.

Searching for Solutions

My criticisms of current market failures should not be construed as an argument for eliminating the government-backed student loan program for law students. Were it not for federal educational loans, I could not have attended college, much less law school. The program was a good idea when Milton Friedman promoted it in the early 1950s, and it is still a good idea today.

But the core of this good idea has gone bad in its implementation. Shining a light on resulting market dysfunction should generate constructive approaches to a remedy. At the October 24 American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Symposium at St. John’s University (and my related law review article appearing thereafter), I’ll outline my ideas.

Here’s a preview: Viewing the law school market in the aggregate — as a single market — obfuscates a reasoned analysis of the problem. It protects the weakest law schools from the consequences of their failures. They should pay an immediate price for exploiting the moral hazard resulting from the current system of financing legal education. At a minimum, the government should not be subsidizing their bad behavior.

The profession would be wise to lead itself out of this mess. The financial incentives of the current structure, along with its pervasive vested interests, make that a daunting task. Even so, human decisions created the problem. Better human decisions can fix them.

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.