THE REAL STORY OF THE NEW YORK PRIMARY

It was a “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment.

Shortly after the polls closed on primary election night in New York, CNN made a bold prediction. Its exit polling showed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders locked in a tight Democratic primary race. Clinton’s win would be close, Wolf Blitzer said: 52 percent to 48 percent.

Less than an hour later, that prediction was as laughable as the famous November 3, 1948 Chicago Tribune headline announcing that voters had elected Thomas E. Dewey President of the United States.

Statistically, the CNN call was far worse. In the end, Truman beat Dewey 49 to 45 percent. Clinton won New York — 58 to 42 percent.

When the News is News

One interesting aspect of the CNN mistake is how quickly it disappeared from public sight. That’s because all major media outlets use exit polling to predict results as soon as they can. First-predictors are the first to attract viewers. There’s no incentive for any of them to throw mud on a process that they all use as a marketing gimmick.

Another aspect is the paucity of discussion over what went wrong at CNN. I don’t know the answer, but this article isn’t about that. It’s about the real lesson of the episode: The use of statistics can be a perilous exercise.

Law Schools

Data are important. It’s certainly wise to look at past results in weighing future decisions. But it’s also important to cut through the noise — and separate valid data from hype.

For example, if less than one-third of a particular law school’s recent graduates are finding full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD, prospective students are wise to consider carefully whether to attend that school. But it becomes more difficult when some law professor argues that the average value of a legal degree over the lifetime of all graduates is, say, a million dollars.

It’s even more challenging when law deans and professors repeat the trope as if it were sacrosanct with a universal application every new JD degree-holder from every school. And it sure doesn’t help when schools with dismal full-time long-term JD employment outcomes tout, “Now is the Time to Fulfill Your Dream of Becoming a Lawyer.”

Law Firms

Likewise, based on their unaudited assessments, leaders of big law firms confess that only about half of their lateral hires over the past five years have been breakeven at best. And that not-so-successful rate has been declining.

Law firms are prudent to consider carefully that data before pursuing aggressive lateral hiring as a growth strategy. But it becomes more difficult when managing partners seek to preside over expanding empires. And it doesn’t help when law firm management consultants keep overselling the strategy as the only means of survival.

Data should drive decisions. But the CNN misfire is a cautionary tale about the limits of statistical analysis. Sometimes numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes they point people in the wrong direction. And sometimes they’re just plain wrong.

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)