LEGAL EDUCATION’S STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

The recent New York Times editorial on the law student debt crisis didn’t attack all law schools as “scams.” Rather, along with Law School Transparency’s recent report, it exposed a soft underbelly. But in defending the bad behavior of others, many law professors and deans are doing themselves, their schools, and the profession a great disservice.

It’s a puzzling situation.

In my 30-year career as a litigator at Kirkland & Ellis, I encountered plenty of bad lawyers. I regarded them as embarrassments to the profession. But I didn’t defend their misconduct. Good doctors don’t tolerate bad ones. Gifted teachers have no patience for incompetent colleagues.

The Opposite of Leadership 

Yet the top officers of the Association of American Law Schools sent a letter to the Times editor that began:

“The New York Times fails to make its case on law school debt.”

AALS president Blake Morant (dean of George Washington University Law School), president-elect Kellye Testy (dean of the University of Washington School of Law), and executive director Judith Areen (professor and former dean at Georgetown Law and former AALS president) then explained why all is well.

If those AALS leaders speak for the organization, a lot of law deans should consider leaving it. Rather than serving the best interests of most law schools, publicly defending the bottom-feeders — while saying “no” to every proposal without offering alternatives — undermines credibility and marginalizes otherwise important voices in the reform process.

Using a Poster Child to Make a Point

The Times editorial looked at Florida Coastal, about which certain facts are incontrovertible: low admission standardsdismal first-time bar passage ratesaverage debt approaching $163,000 for the 93 percent of its 2014 graduates with law school loans; poor JD-employment prospects (ten months after graduation, only 35 percent of the school’s 2014 class had full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage).

Florida Coastal isn’t alone among those exploiting law school moral hazard. Without any accountability for the fate of their graduates, many schools feed on non-dischargeable federal loans and the dysfunctional market that has allowed them to survive.

Predictable Outrage from a Inside the Bubble

In June, Scott DeVito became Florida Coastal’s new dean. In an interview about his strategic plans, he said, ““We’re going to have to build more on the parking garage because people will want to go here.”

Predictably, DeVito pushed back hard against the Times’s op-ed. (The newspaper published only a portion of his two-page letter.) He boasts that his school’s first-time bar passage rate was 75 percent in February 2015 — third best of the state’s 11 law schools. That’s true.

But the February session typically includes only 50 to 60 Florida Coastal first-time test-takers annually. DeVito doesn’t mention more recent results from the July 2015 administration, which usually includes 200 to 300 Florida Coastal grads each year: 59.3 percent first-time bar passage rate — eighth out of eleven Florida law schools.

From 2010 to 2014, the school’s July results were:

2010: 78.8% (7th out of 11)

2011: 74.6% (8th)

2012: 75.2% (9th)

2013: 67.4% (10th)

2014: 58.0% (10th)

Who among America’s law school deans is willing to defend that performance record? Their professional organization, the AALS, seems to be.

Facts Get in the Way

DeVito acknowledges that his students’ law school debt is high, but says that’s because, as a for-profit school, “taxpayers are not paying for our students’ education.” That’s a remarkable statement. Florida Coastal and every other law school receives the current system’s inherent government subsidies: non-dischargeable federal student loans, income-based repayment (IBR), and loan forgiveness programs.

Likewise, DeVito asserts that Florida Coastal students “repay their loans,” citing the school’s low default rate. The AALS letter makes the same point: “[M]ost law students…are able to repay and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.”

That argument is disingenuous. The absence of a default doesn’t mean a graduate is repaying the loan or that the day of reckoning for deferred or IBR-forgiven debt will never arrive for students and taxpayers. In fact, it’s inconsistent to assert that law students “repay their loans” while also touting the benefits of IBR and loan forgiveness because students in those programs will never have to repay their loans in full. (And they still won’t be in default!)

Not Defaulting Is Not the Same as Repaying

A recent Department of Education report on colleges highlights the extent to which the absence of default is not equivalent to repayment. There’s no similar compilation for law schools, but an April 2015 Federal Reserve Bank of New York Report on Student Loan Borrowing and Repayment trends generally notes that while only 11% of all educational loan borrowers are in default, “46% of borrowers are current in their loans but are not in repayment. Only 37% of borrowers are current on their loan and actively paying down.” (Emphasis supplied)

As the New York Fed reports, the worsening repayment rate is exacerbating the long-term debt problem for students and taxpayers: “The lower overall repayment rate [compared to earlier years] helps explain the steady growth in aggregate student debt, now at nearly 1.2 trillion dollars.”

Righting Wrongs?

Finally, DeVito takes a noble turn, claiming that it “takes a for-profit entity to right a wrong — in this case the lack of diversity in law schools.”

In “Diversity as a Law School Survival Strategy,” St. Louis University School of Law Professor Aaron N. Taylor explains that marginal schools with the worst graduate employment outcomes have become diversity leaders: “[T]he trend of stratification may only serve to intensify racial and ethnic differences in career paths and trajectories.”

Rather than righting a wrong, it looks more like two wrongs not making a right.

A Few Profiles in Courage

To their credit, Professors William Henderson (Indiana University Maurer School of Law) and David Barnhizer (Cleveland-Marshall College of Law), among others, have embraced the Times’s message that Brian Tamanaha (Washington University School of Law) offered years ago: The current system is broken. Recognize it; accept it; help to lead the quest for meaningful reform.

Likewise, Loyola School of Law (Chicago) Dean David Yellen worries about schools that are “enrolling large numbers of students whose academic credentials suggest that they are likely to struggle gaining admission to the bar… [T]he basic point is an important one that legal education must address.”

The Real Enemy

DeVito’s effort to spin away Florida Coastal’s problems is understandable. Properly implemented, school-specific financial accountability for employment outcomes would put maximum pressure on the weakest law schools. Frankly, the demise of even a single marginal law school would come as a welcome relief. Since the Great Recession we’ve added law schools, not eliminated them.

That’s why most law schools and their mouthpiece, the AALS, should side with Dean Yellen and Professors Henderson, Barnhizer, Tamanaha, and others urging meaningful reform. To test that hypothesis, try this:

The next time someone says that introducing financial accountability for individual schools would be a bad idea, ask why.

The next time someone says that respectable law schools serving their students and the profession should not distance themselves from marginal players that could never survive in a functioning market for legal education, ask why not.

The next time someone says that a united front against change is imperative, ask who the real enemy is.

Then offer a mirror.

BIG LAW’S 2012 PERFORMANCE — NUMBERS AND NUANCE

Two recent reports sound a warning that most big law firm leaders should heed. One is the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report on the State of the Legal Profession. The other is Citi Private Bank’s Annual Law Firm Survey.

Lessons from Dewey & LeBoeuf

The Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Report is noteworthy because, at long last, thoughtful analysts are giving Dewey & LeBoeuf’s collapse the larger context that it deserves. For the most past, today’s managing partners have persuaded themselves that Dewey’s failure resulted from a unique confluence of management missteps that they themselves could never make. But most current leaders are making them.

In particular, Dewey wasn’t an outlier; it was among the elite of the Am Law 100. The firm embodied a culmination of prevailing big law firm trends that can—and will—produce future disasters. As the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report explains, those trends include raising the bar for promoting home-grown talent into equity partnerships while overpaying for lateral equity partner hires, increasing internal compensation spreads to create a subgroup of real players within equity partnerships, and ignoring the importance of morale and institutional loyalty to long-term stability.

Crunching the numbers

Meanwhile, Citi Private Bank’s annual full-year survey of big firms produced this upbeat headline: “Firms Posted a 4.3 Percent Rise in 2012 Profits.” But important underlying details are more troubling.

Although revenue and profits were up by 3.6 and 4.3 percent, respectively, overall demand at the 179 firms in the Citi sample grew by just 0.2 percent in 2012, expenses increased by 3.1 percent, and headcount grew more than demand. It’s a decidedly mixed bag of financial results.

In fact, Citi’s Dan DiPietro and Gretta Rusanow fear that the 2012 fourth quarter revenue surge saving many big firms “may not be sustainable.” For example, “survivorship bias” contributed to the final 2012 numbers. That is, Citi’s analysis removed Dewey & LeBoeuf’s revenue, demand, and equity partner figures from the 2011 base year because the firm disappeared in 2012. But most of Dewey’s revenue went to surviving firms, thereby artificially inflating the overall 2012 numbers. To some extent, it’s like comparing 2012’s apples to 2011’s oranges. Including Dewey’s 2011 numbers would have resulted in negative demand growth in 2012.

Citi also discussed the impact of accelerated year-end collections. They’re an annual event at most firms, but the expiring Bush-era tax cuts gave partners unique incentives to push clients for payment in December 2012. The report also mentioned a related possibility: firms may not have prepaid 2013 expenses.

A more insidious prospect goes unmentioned: some firms may have deferred expenses that were due and owing in December 2012. If the 2013 first quarter Citi report is surprisingly weak, look for a spike in expenses as a factor. Freedom to ignore generally accepted accounting principles in financial reporting gives law firms financial flexibility that can become dangerous.

Or maybe the numbers don’t matter

Transcending all of these possibilities is, perhaps, the simplest. Averages are often deceptive. For example, in a firm where the internal top-to-bottom equity partner income spread is ten-to-one or higher, average partner profits may reveal that some partners are players and most aren’t. But as an economic metric describing a typical partner in the firm, it’s useless.

Just as average profits can mask enormous differences within an equity partnership, so, too, overall average profits for the industry can hide the gap between successful firms and those struggling to survive. That means 2013 could be another year in which some Am Law 200 law firms will fail (or become absorbed in last-resort mergers).

Fragile winners

But even firms that regard themselves as financial winners in 2012 should beware. Many would do well to heed the Georgetown/Thomson Reuters caution about the loss of traditional partnership values that undermined Dewey & LeBouef. Considered from a different perspective, numbers that appear to demonstrate success can actually reveal lurking failure.

After all, as recently as the May 2011 list of the Am Law 100, Dewey was #23 in 2010 average equity partner profits ($1.8 million), #22 in gross revenue per lawyer ($910,000), and #19 on the Am Law profitability index with a profit margin of 36 percent. In February 2012, the firm made Am Law’s annual “most lateral hires” list for 2011, but no public report disclosed the firm’s staggering (but by no means unique) top-to-bottom equity partner income gap.

As a wise friend reminds me periodically, things are rarely as good as they seem — or as bad as they seem. He’s definitely right about the good part.

EXPLAINING ABA INTRANSIGENCE

Who are these people?

Recently, the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar rejected an important recommendation of its Special Standards Review Committee. The proposed rule would have required law school-specific disclosure of salary information. No dice, said the Council.

It raises a question that no one seems willing to ask: Who are these Council people, anyway?

Perhaps the Council’s composition is relevant to understanding why it vetoed its own committee’s effort to promote greater candor. In approving a host of other transparency initiatives that have been far too long in coming, the Council stopped short of requiring what might be the most important disclosure of all:

If a student manages to get a job upon graduation, what are the chances that it will pay well enough to cover educational loans, rent, food, and the bare necessities of life?

I don’t know how individual members voted, but their affiliations are interesting. The current chair is dean of the New England School of Law, which has a perennial place in the U.S. News & World Report unranked nether regions. (Regular readers know my disdain for the U.S. News rankings that have transformed deans into contortionists as they pander to its flawed methodology. But as an overall indicator of general quality groups rather than specific ordinal placement, they confirm what most people believe to be true anyway.)

Consider the other academics on the Council. The Chair-elect is also a dean — Washington University School of Law (23rd on the U.S. News list). The Council’s Secretary was dean at the University of Montana School of Law (#145 ). Others deans and former deans on the Council hail from Hamline University Law School (unranked), North Carolina Central University School of Law (unranked), University of Kansas School of Law (#89), University of Miami School of Law (#69), Boston University School of Law (#26). Another member is an associate dean —  University of Minnesota Law School (#19). The remaining academic Council members teach at Drexel University (#119) and Georgetown (#13).

Several other Council members who are not full-time professors have teaching affiliations with, for example, Cleveland-Marshall Law School (#135), University of Utah (#47), and Arizona State University (#26, tied with BU and Indiana University).

Each institution has its share of outstanding faculty and graduates; that’s not the point. But if these or most other schools had to disclose their recent graduates’ detailed salary information, would it make any of them look better to prospective students? Not likely.

The “appearance of impropriety” is an important ethical concept in the legal profession. Any dean or former dean on the Council who voted in favor of salary disclosure should say so. Those who don’t should live with the guilt by association that will accompany adverse inferences drawn from their silence.

Here’s the current Chairman’s spin on the situation: “There should be no doubt that the section is fully committed to clarity and accuracy of law school placement data. Current and prospective students will now have more timely access to detailed information that will help them make important decisions.”

Unless, of course, the information that students seek relates to the incomes they’ll earn after forking over $100,000-plus in tuition and incurring debt that they can’t discharge in bankruptcy.

Also from the ABA statement:

“The Council specifically declined to require the collection and publication of salary data because fewer than 45% of law graduates contacted by their law schools report their salaries. The Council felt strongly that the current collection of such data is unreliable and produces distorted information.”

If a forty-five percent response rate is sufficiently low to throw out data as unreliable because it produces distorted information, what does that say about U.S. News‘ survey used to calculate almost one-seventh of every law school’s 2013 ranking? The response rate for its “assessment by lawyers/judges” component was twelve percent.

I know, I know: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Emerson, R.W.,”Self-Reliance,” First Essays, 1841)