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.

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.