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.

PRACTICAL SKILLS

A few days after the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the loss of another 2,600 legal jobs in June, the Wall Street Journal ran “Law Schools Get Practical.” Some schools are changing curriculum to develop skills that real lawyers need; that makes sense. But some hope that more big law positions for graduates will result; that is magical thinking.

Reconsidering legal education is important. The first year teaches students to think like lawyers; the second year covers important substantive areas. To deal with the universally maligned third year, Stanford is considering a clinical course requirement involving 40-hour plus weeks of actual case work, while Washington and Lee University of Law School replaced lectures and seminars with “case-based simulations run by practicing lawyers.”

Meanwhile, Harvard has updated its curriculum significantly in recent years. Indiana University Maurer School of Law teaches “project management” and “emotional intelligence.” NYU offers courses in “negotiation” and “client counseling.” Some innovations are more valuable than others, but no one should think that improved job prospects will result.

The article quoted a recruiter at McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP who said that clients weren’t willing to pay for new lawyer training. Likewise, Xerox’s general counsel described his company’s policy of not paying for first-year associates. The implication is that if new graduates received more practical training in school, clients would pay for them and hiring would increase. Not a chance.

First, new associates in large firms don’t need the practical skills that most law schools are promoting. If there were courses on “maximizing billable hours,” “withstanding unreasonable partner demands,” or “surviving a culture of attrition where fewer than ten percent of new associates will become equity partners,” that would be one thing. But document review, due diligence undertakings, and other mundane tasks that consume most big law associates’ early years don’t require much special training. Some don’t even require a law degree. Xerox — and many other companies sharing its dim view of first-year associate value — won’t start paying for young attorneys just because they have taken the new courses.

Second, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 have moved steadily upward over the last decade — to over $1.3 million in 2010. If those firms are already “suffering” from client resistance to paying for new associates, partners nevertheless seem to be thriving financially.

Finally, when asked whether current law school innovations will help students land jobs, Timothy Lloyd, chair of Hogan Lovells recruiting committee, told the Journal:

“It could enhance the reputation of the law school…as places that will produce lawyers who have practical skills. As to the particular student when I’m interviewing them? It doesn’t make much of a difference.”

Bingo. As a big law interviewer myself, I looked for intelligence, personality, and potential. Specific courses didn’t matter. Assessing candidates was and is subjective but, to adapt Justice Stewart’s pornography test, I usually knew a good one when I saw one.

Schools should expand clinical programs, but not because such student credentials matter to large firm recruiters. They don’t. However, those who don’t get big law jobs really need practical lawyering skills. Do it for them — the vast majority of today’s 50,000 annual graduates.

Schools should modernize curriculum, but not to become business school knockoffs for big law. That’s a mistake.

Even more urgently, schools should educate prospective attorneys more fully about the big law path — from the challenge of getting a job to the unforgiving billable hours culture to the elusive brass ring of equity partnership. (See, e.g., The Partnership)

That would be real reform, but at most place it won’t happen. Yale’s cautionary memo about the real meaning of 2,000 billable hours a year and Stanford’s “Alternatives to Big Law” series that compliments its outstanding student loan forgiveness program are hopeful beginnings. But such candor runs counter to the enticing big firm starting salaries that pervade law school websites aimed at the next generation of would-be lawyers. After all, their student loans pay the bills.