TRUMP AND BETSY DEVOS DELIVER A ONE-TWO PUNCH

Since 2007, the federal student loan forgiveness (PSLF) program has been an escape hatch for law graduates (and others) saddled with overwhelming educational debt. The idea was that the graduate would take a public service job at low pay and reduced monthly loan requirements. After ten years of service, any remaining loan debt was forgiven. The well-known backstory is that student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. They can follow a person to the grave.

There were and still are problems with PSLF, such as the resulting tax on the imputed income from the forgiven loan. And 10 years is a long time to toil in low wage positions. But the country and many recent graduates have been the better for it.

New Problems

Serious administrative issues surfaced when the ABA sued the Department of Education for retroactive denials to lawyers who thought they were employed in qualifying PSLF programs. After original approval, the suit alleged, the department then reneged and said, in effect, “No soup for you.”

According to one report, “The ABA, which views the program as an essential part of its recruiting and retention efforts, was only informed that it was no longer an eligible employer for PSLF purposes earlier this year – nine years into a 10 year program. The association has lost employees who were in the program and has been told by possible hires that the loss of qualification was an important factor in not joining the ABA.”

Problems Solved, Trump-Style

For young lawyers hoping that public service loan forgiveness was the answer to a lifetime of student debt burdens, Trump has some bad news. Rather than remedy the problems with a program that can provide enormous help to many recent grads and the organizations for which they work, he wants to eliminate it altogether. It’s analogous to his approach to the Affordable Care Act. Fixing something is more difficult than eliminating it altogether. So Trump proposes to eliminate it.

Amid the attention surrounding Trump’s scandals involving Russia, obstruction of justice, and business conflicts of interest, many important stories got lost. What’s happening in the U.S Department of Education is one of them. On May 17, The Washington Post reported, “Funding for college work-study programs would be cut in half, public-service loan forgiveness would end and hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools could use for mental health, advanced coursework and other services would vanish under a Trump administration plan to cut $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives.”

Why? Because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ lifelong mission has been to promote private and religious schools. According the Post story, she seeks to put $400 million into expanding “charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools, and another $1 billion to push public schools to adopt choice-friendly policies.”

Who’s Affected?

By the end of 2016, 550,00 people had been approved for the federal loan forgiveness program. The first beneficiaries of the program will receive their rewards this year. If Trump and DeVos have their way, they will become the vanguard of a dying breed. Trump and DeVos are not just throwing out the baby with the bathwater; they’re ripping out the tub and all of the plumbing, too.

THE ABA IS RAISING THE WRONG BAR

“[W]hen we look at these low performing schools, you guys are doing absolutely nothing.”

So said a member of the Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity last June. I wrote about the painful session in August. The question on the table was whether the American Bar Association should lose its power to accredit law schools. The ABA leaders on the receiving end of that stinging rebuke had expected routine approval. What they got instead was a three-hour thrashing.

Disaster Avoided

The ABA beat back the committee’s recommendation of a 12-month suspension of its accreditation power. Even worse, it learned nothing from the episode. That became apparent in October, when the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar recommended a rule change that it thought was monumental. It’s actually far too little coming far too late.

The new rule would require at least a 75 percent of a law school’s graduates to pass a state bar exam within two years of receiving their degrees. The current standard requires a 75 percent pass rate within five years. Since 2000, only four law schools have faced difficulty under the current standard, and all were restored to full accreditation.

Looming Disaster Remains

The Department of Education’s heat directed at schools taking advantage of their students could cool significantly under President Trump, who recently paid $25 million to settle former students’ fraud claims against Trump University. The troubling law school backstory is a less dramatic variation on the same theme.

Plummeting national bar passage rates coupled with growing student debt for degrees of dubious value are the culmination of a dysfunctional market in legal education. That dysfunction is taking a cruel toll on a generation vulnerable to exploitation by elders who know better. Sooner or later, we’ll all pay the price.

The ABA’s latest misfire toward a remedy misses the key point: even passing the bar doesn’t mean getting a law job. Within 10 months of graduation, fewer than 60 percent of 2015 graduates obtained full-time long-term employment requiring bar passage. Compared to the class of 2014, the number of such positions declined by 10 percent (from 26,248 to 23,687). The total number of 2015 graduates: 40,000.

Students attending marginal schools bear the greatest burden. Their schools use a business model that relies on federal student loan dollars to fill classrooms. Because schools have no accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes, they are free to dip ever deeper into the well of unqualified applicants. Prospective employers have noticed.

Disaster For Many Students

The ABA’s persistent refusal to confront the employment rate problem brought the Department of Education into the picture. At the June hearing, committee members posed tough questions that ABA Managing Director Barry Currier had a tougher time answering. As some marginal schools received huge federal dollars, the committee noted, the vast majority of their graduates couldn’t get law jobs.

Now the ABA proposes tinkering at the edges. Even at that, based on the outrage generated from some inside the professorial ranks, you’d think it was trying to do something truly revolutionary. Some educators complained that shortening the 75 percent bar passage rate period from five years to two would discourage schools from admitting minority candidates, thereby leading to a less diverse profession.

That’s a non sequitur. If an additional three years after graduation is needed for some graduates to pass the bar, whatever they’re learning during that post-graduate period can’t be coming from their former classrooms. And, of course, nothing in the ABA proposal solves the employment problem.

Disaster Rewards a Few

As educators rely on student debt to keep their law schools operating, they’re getting paid, regardless of how their graduates fare in the job market. That frames the issue with which the ABA should be grappling but continues to dismiss: Marginal law schools are unable place most of their graduates in full-time long-term bar passage-required jobs.

Solving that problem requires schools to have financial skin in the game. Here’s one suggestion: tie the availability of a student’s federal loan dollars to a law school’s employment outcomes. That would create accountability that no dean or administrator currently possesses. And they sure don’t want it.

The ABA is institutionally incapable of embracing the change required to create a functional market in legal education. Vested interests are too embedded. The clout of the marginal schools is too great.

For example, the head of the ABA’s last “task force” on the challenges of financing legal education was also serving as the chairman of the national policy board of the Infilaw consortium of for-profit law schools, including the Charlotte School of Law. In fact, Dennis W. Archer still chairs the Infilaw national policy board. On November 15, Charlotte was the subject of a rare event: the ABA placed the school on probation because of its admissions practices. The ABA also ordered public disclosure of its bar passage rates.

But the ABA didn’t address the bigger problem with Charlotte that afflicts students at similar schools: dismal full-time long-term bar-passage required employment rates. Charlotte’s rate for the class of 2015 was 26 percent — down from 38 percent in 2012. Here’s the real kicker: from 2011 to 2015, the number of graduates at Charlotte increased from 97 to 456.

Growing supply in response to shrinking demand. That’s what happens when the people running law schools view students as revenue streams for which the schools will never have any financial accountability. The federal government backs the loans; educational debt survives personal bankruptcy; many in a generation of young would-be attorneys begin adulthood in a deep, six-figure financial hole.

Perhaps President-elect Trump will identify with the plight of the student-victims of this continuing disaster. Where would he be today if he had not been able to discharge his business loans through a string of bankruptcy filings? Not in the White House, that’s for sure.

THE ABA’S TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY

It’s a mere formality. Every five years, the Department of Education renews the ABA’s power to accredit law schools. The June 2016 session before a DOE advisory committee (NACIQI) was supposed to be just another step in the rubber-stamping process. The NACIQI staff had recommended approval. The committee’s three-day session contemplated action on a dozen other accrediting bodies, ranging from the American Psychological Association to the American Theological Schools. Sandwiched between acupuncture and health education, the agenda contemplated an hour for the ABA.

What could go wrong?

For starters, committee members grilled the ABA’s representatives for an entire afternoon.

Questions About Law Student Debt?

First up for the ABA was the chair of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Arizona Supreme Court Justice Rebecca White Berch. A committee member asked how the ABA assessed schools based on the interrelationship between student debt, bar passage rate, and graduate placement rates. Justice Berch said the ABA was looking “for a bar passing rate of 75 percent…. [W]as that part of your question?”

Actually, that was just a proposal set for an ABA Section hearing on August 6, but it wasn’t what the NACIQI had in mind.

NACIQI Member: “Sorry, no. I think my question also went to concern related to debt that students incurred while in law school and relationship of that to placement.”

ABA Managing Director Barry Currier tried to field that one:

“With respect to debt, we have been following a disclosure model for a number of years now and a lot of information is disclosed… [W]e collect information about student borrowing, but it is currently not part of the consumer information that schools are required to post with us… [T]here is no standard about how much debt is too much debt at this point in time.”

Let the squirming begin.

“So it may be,” Currier continued, “that as evidence mounts that students don’t shop very effectively and that as uncapped student loans are available, that we need to be more paternalistic, if you will, or more — we may need to make more information required and adopt standards around how much debt is too much debt.”

Placement Rates?

NACIQI: “What would be an appropriate placement rate for a law school?”

Currier: “Well our standards do not require any specific employment…[W]e don’t have a specific standard that a school must achieve in terms of placement.”

NACIQI: “But you are the ones who identified that legal education is very expensive… And if they can’t find a job it wrecks their lives.”

NACIQI: “[Y]ou can tell a lot from some of these low performing schools. And a school that sticks out to me is Whittier Law School in California… [T]he enrollment has dropped 51 percent since 2010, yet tuition has increased 31 percent since 2008.”

He wasn’t finished.

“Over 105 million dollars of Title IV funding has gone into this school. All the while, one in four graduates of this law school has obtained a full-time attorney job within nine months… Appalachian School of Law, University of LaVerne, Golden Gate, all have abysmal placement rates… [S]o I guess my question is specifically related to these low performing institutions: what are you guys doing?”

Then he answered his own question:

“[W]hen we look at these low performing schools, you guys are doing absolutely nothing.”

Can We Talk About Something Else?

Justice Berch’s attempt to change the subject was unavailing.

NACIQI: “We are talking about student debt, right, so — I guess you are not answering my question, and so I would like for us to stay on that… I just want to make sure we are talking about what is your responsibility and your response to these lower performing schools. I mean, have they been put on probation? That’s my first question.”

Justice Berch: You make a valid point. The answer is — has anyone yet been put on probation? No…”

NACIQI: “How many institutions have you denied accreditation to for low pass rates?

Justice Berch: For low pass rates alone, none.”

NACIQI: “Over the past five years how many institutions have you withdrawn your accreditation from?”

Currier: “Zero, zero.”

You Think The ABA Can’t Do The Job?

During the NACIQI’s discussion on the motion to recommend renewal of the ABA’s accreditation power, one member put the problem bluntly:

“I am troubled that the ABA just simply isn’t independent enough for this responsibility… I find it very difficult to think that they are going to be objective enough to continue to carry out this responsibility. And I reluctantly conclude that the ABA is not the appropriate accreditor for our law schools…[T]he crushing debt load on thousands and thousands of students is too serious for us… And I think the debt load is not going to get better if we say yes to this motion.”

Another member added: “I think that objectivity is important as you go through this process, so I would think an independent body that does not have the conflict of interest that the ABA has.”

It’s Worse Than They Thought

The NACIQI didn’t consider a recent illustration of the ABA’s independence problems. Former ABA President Dennis Archer is chairman of the national policy board of Infilaw — a consortium of three for-profit law schools. At those schools — Arizona Summit, Florida Coastal, and the Charlotte School of Law — students graduate with six-figure debt and dismal prospects for a meaningful job requiring bar passage. (Full-time long-term JD-required job placement rate ten months after 2015 graduation: Arizona Summit — 40 percent; Florida Coastal — 39 percent; Charlotte — 26 percent.)

On November 18, 2013, Archer and Infilaw’s chief executive officer co-signed a seven-page tour de force warning the DOE about the perils of applying the “Gainful Employment Rule” to “proprietary law schools and first professional degree schools in general.” The letter (on Infilaw stationery) argued, among other things, that the proposed rule was unnecessary because the ABA — as an accrediting body — ensures that InfiLaw “must offer an education that will help students achieve their goals.”

Six months later, Archer became chairman of the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing Legal Education. A year later — June 2015 — the Task Force acknowledged that 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their revenues from tuition. But it refused to recommend an obvious remedy: financial penalties for schools where students incur massive law school debt in exchange for dismal long-term JD-required job prospects.

The Task Force’s recommendations were embarrassingly inadequate, but the ABA House of Delegates accepted them.

One More Chance?

The ABA’s culture of self-interest and insularity has now created a bigger mess. Some NACIQI members favored the “nuclear” option: recommending denial of the ABA’s accrediting authority altogether. The committee opted to send a “clear message” through less draconian means.

The final recommendation was to give the ABA a 12-month period during which it would have no power to accredit new law schools. Thereafter, the ABA would report its progress in addressing the committee’s concerns, including the massive debt that students are incurring at law schools with poor JD-required placement rates.

As one member put it, “It is great to collect data, but they don’t have any standard on placement. What’s the point of collecting data if you can’t…use the data to help the students and protect the students…”

Another member summarized the committee’s view of the ABA: “This feels like an Agency that is out of step with a crisis in its profession, out of step with the changes in higher ed, and out of step with the plight of the students that are going through the law schools.”

The day of reckoning may not be at hand, but it’s getting closer.

LAW SCHOOLS AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

On June 17, Noam Scheiber’s article, “An Expensive Law Degree and No Place to Use It,” appeared in The New York Times. He focused on individual human tragedies resulting from the legal education bubble.

Four days later, Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon countered with his Times column, “Law School Still a Solid Investment, Despite Pay Discrepancies.” Notwithstanding the title, he’s moving in Scheiber’s direction.

Learning from Mistakes

Professor Solomon’s prior ventures into legal education haven’t gone particularly well. In November 2014, he wrote “[T]he decline in enrollment could lead to a shortage of lawyers five years from now.” Highlighting Thomas Jefferson School of Law as one of the marginal schools fighting to remain alive, Solomon suggested, “It may be tempting to shut them in these difficult times, but it can cost tens of millions to open a new one. Better to invest and cut back on expenses for a while and see what happens.”

Consistent with his area of expertise — financial and securities regulation — Professor Solomon was relying on the market to work. But in legal education, it never gets a chance. Bankruptcy laws and the federal student loan program insulate law schools from accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

Waiting to “see what happens” became a triumph of hope over reality. For the Thomas Jefferson class of 2013, the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate nine months after graduation was 29 percent. For the class of 2014, it was 30 percent. Even with an additional month for the class of 2015 to find jobs, the ten-month FTLT-JD-required employment rate was 24 percent. But the school did win that nagging fraud case brought by a recent graduate.

In April 2015, Solomon’s column on legal education and the profession was so riddled with errors that I climbed out of a hospital bed to write a responsive post culminating in this question, “Whatever happened to The New York Times fact-checker?”

Almost There

With all of that carnage in the rearview mirror, Professor Solomon’s June 21 article assumes a more moderate tone. Most importantly, he acknowledges the different legal education markets that exist for new graduates: “[I]t is clear that it is harder out there for the lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

Noting that some big firms announced starting salary increases to $180,000 for the class of 2016, he cautions, “Only the lucky 17 percent of graduates earn salaries this high. To be in this group, you needed to go to a top 10 school or graduate in the higher ranks of the top quartile of law schools. Things are harder for every other law graduate.”

Solomon also accepts the bimodal distribution of starting salaries that results from the different markets for law graduates: “[W]hile 17 percent of graduates earned median salary of $160,000 in 2014, about half had a median starting salary of $40,000 to $65,000.”

The article could and should have ended with this: “Either way, it is clear that it is harder out there for lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

In Defense of Fellow Professors?

Four days before Solomon’s article, Noam Scheiber’s Times piece profiled once-hopeful students at Valparaiso University School of Law. They’d incurred massive debt for a JD degree, but couldn’t find jobs requiring one. Scheiber also quoted a professor who recently headed the school’s admissions committee: “If we could go back, I think we should have erred a little more on the side of turning people down.”

Immediately after the publication of Scheiber’s article, social media took over when a law professor complained in an open letter to Scheiber: “Have you seen this line of peer-reviewed research, which estimates the boost to earning from a law degree including the substantial proportion of law graduates who do not practice law?”

The cited “line of peer-reviewed research” consisted of one study, co-authored by that professor in 2013. When Scheiber invited the professor to identify any factual errors in his article, the professor provided six alleged mistakes. For anyone interested in diving into those weeds, Scheiber posted the six items and his response on his Facebook page, including this:

“It’s not worth reviewing the controversy about your work on law graduate earnings here, since the criticisms are well-established. But suffice it to say, I think it’s strange to respond to a claim that the economic prospects of people graduating after the recession have fundamentally changed relative to those who graduated before the recession with a study that only includes people who graduated prior to 2009.”

(UPDATE: On Friday, June 24, the professor responded to Scheiber’s response.)

Among the many other criticisms to which Scheiber refers is the 2013 study’s failure to consider differences among law schools in their graduates’ incomes. In other words, it ignored the actual law school markets.

Nearing the Finish Line

Professor Solomon’s latest article centers on the importance of recognizing those different markets. But he still cites the 2013 study for the proposition that “most law students earned a premium of hundreds of thousands of dollars over what they would have earned had they not gone to law school, even taking into account the debt they accrue.”

Even so, Solomon’s slow walk away from the 2013 study improves on his April 2015 column. There, he relied on it to suggest that an “acceleration in compensation results in a premium of $1 million for lawyers over their lifetime compared with those who did not go to law school.” Now he’s down to “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for “most law students.”

Professor Solomon teaches at a top school, UC-Berkeley. He knows that plenty of students at other schools have a tough road ahead. Solomon no longer refers to an overly broad $1 million lifetime premium. He has also added a qualifier (“most law students” — meaning a mere 51 percent) — to whatever he thinks the study proves about the economic benefit of a JD. In other words, he has rendered the 2013 study meaningless to anyone considering law school today.

So why does Professor Solomon continue to cite the study at all? Better not to ask. Accept progress wherever you find it.

 

ABOUT THAT LAWYER SHORTAGE…

Facts are stubborn things — almost as stubborn as persistent academic predictions that boom times for attorneys are just around the corner.

Back in 2013, Professor Ted Seto at Loyola Law School-Los Angeles observed, “Unless something truly extraordinary has happened to non-cyclical demand, a degrees-awarded-per-capita analysis suggests that beginning in fall 2015 and intensifying into 2016 employers are likely to experience an undersupply of law grads, provided that the economic recovery continues.”

In November 2014 after the Bureau of Labor Statistics proposed a new and deeply flawed methodology for measuring attorney employment, Professor Seto weighed in again: “If the new BLS projections are accurate, we should see demand and supply in relative equilibrium in 2015 and a significant excess of demand over supply beginning in 2016.” His school’s full-time long-term bar passage employment rate for the class of 2015 was 62 percent — slightly better than the overall mean and median for all law schools, which are just under 60 percent.

Likewise in 2014, Professor Rene Reich-Graefe at Western New England University School of Law used what he described as “hard data” to argue, “[C]urrent and future law students are standing at the threshold of the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country.” The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics published his dubious analysis leading to that prediction. Within ten months of graduation, only 43 percent of 2015 graduates from Professor Reich-Graefe’s school found full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage.

Fact-sayers v. Self-interested Soothsayers

To his credit, Professor Jerry Organ at the University of St. Thomas School of Law has been fearless in challenging the relentless optimism of his academic colleagues. And he does it with the most persuasive of lawyerly approaches: using facts and evidence.

Analyzing the ABA’s recently released law school employment reports for all fully-accredited law schools, Professor Organ notes that the number of graduates dropped in 2015. But for the second straight year, so did the number of full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage.

Professor Organ offers a number of explanations for this result: declining bar passage rates; regional factors that reduced hiring in Texas and elsewhere; the impact of technology. But whatever the reasons, he suggests, “[T]his employment outcomes data provides a cautionary tale.”

Proceeding Without Caution

“The fact that the employment market for law school graduates appears to have stagnated and even declined to some extent over the last two years,” Professor Organ continues, “may mean that risk averse potential law school applicants who focus on post-graduate employment opportunities when assessing whether to invest in a legal education may remain skittish about applying, such that this year’s good news on the applicant front may be somewhat short-lived.”

The “good news on the applicant front” to which Professor Organ refers is his projection that applications for the fall 2016 entering class are on track to increase for the first time since 2010. But he offers a cautionary note there as well. Law schools at the upper end “will see more enrollment growth and profile stability in comparison with law schools further down the rankings continuum.”

Perilous Predictions

Some prognostications are safer than others. Here’s mine: Faculty and administration at weak law schools will continue using the overall decline in the number of all applicants to persist in their misleading sales pitches that now is a “Great Time to Go to Any Law School.” They will discourage inquiry into more relevant facts.

But here they are: At the 90th percentile of all 204 ABA-accredited law schools, the full-time long-term bar passage-required employment rate for 2015 graduates was just under 80 percent. At the 75th percentile, it was 67 percent. But at the 25th percentile, it was 49 percent. And at the 10th percentile, it was only 39 percent.

It will always be a great time to go to some law schools. It will never be a great time to go to others.

WARM BODIES

Colleges have entered a game that law schools have been playing for years. According to a recent New York Times front page headline, “Colleges Seek Warm Bodies From Overseas.” The title of the online version was equally pointed: “Recruiting Students Overseas to Fill Seats, Not to Meet Standards.

For years, law schools have been dropping standards to fill classrooms. Marginal schools have been the worst offenders, and the profession is now paying the price in declining bar passage rates. But even among top schools, a more subtle and profitable technique has pervaded law school business plans for years: expanding LLM programs.

The Numbers

From 2006 to 2013, the number of law students enrolled in non-JD programs increased by almost 50 percent — to more than 11,000. Leading the way are LLM programs that now exist at more than 150 law schools. And students from foreign countries are flocking to them.

What began decades ago as a noble effort to encourage international cultural diversity has become a cynical method of revenue generation. The Times article focuses on colleges that use foreign recruiters. But its money quotes apply to law schools:

“[T]he underlying motivation for the university…is to get warm bodies in the door.”

“It is ethically wrong to bring students to the university and let them believe they can be successful when we have nothing in place to make sure they’re successful.”

“[C]olleges began to look at foreign students, who pay full tuition, as their financial salvation.”

Need Money?

Warm bodies. Graduate outcomes that aren’t the schools’ problem. Students who pay full tuition. If you’re running a law school as a business, the solution to declining revenues from a JD program becomes three letters: LLM.

Professor George Edwards at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law explains:

“I would like to think that U.S. law schools are creating LLM programs or expanding existing programs primarily for altruistic reasons…The reality is that law schools are businesses, and to stay afloat they must generate revenue to pay law school expenses, such as faculty salaries. Law school revenues primarily come from tuition revenues, and revenues are down due to fewer U.S. students enrolling in the degree programs for the basic U.S. law degree, the JD.”

“U.S. law schools have been seeking ways to make up for lost revenue,” Professor Edwards continues. “One way is to create or expand enrollment for international LLM students who may not have the same worries that are driving JD enrollment downwards.”

And so, he concludes,

“The desire to increase law school revenue has triggered a proliferation of new LLM programs and triggered the expansion of existing LLM programs.”

So What’s the Problem?

What exactly should a law school’s mission be? Some deans are unwilling to ask the question because they fear honest answers: revenue generation, short-term profits, and maximizing U.S. News rankings. Moving away from those safe harbors risks reorienting the profession toward what it was when they decided to become lawyers.

An institution’s mission statement should be the starting point for every decision its leaders make. Law schools are no exception. From the faculty hired to students admitted to programs offered, clear goals produce coherent behavior. But at law schools throughout the country, discussions about objectives — what they are and what they should be — aren’t happening.

Restating platitudes is easy. Developing a statement of principles to govern conduct is a challenge. Requiring consistent action in accordance with those principles creates accountability.

For centuries, the legal profession has occupied a transcendent role in the preservation of civilization. Law schools have been the custodians of that tradition. To retain that stature, the people who run them should view their responsibilities as something more than managing just another business. If they don’t, their schools will become exactly that.

THE CRISIS IN LEGAL EDUCATION IS OVER!

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — will be released on March 8, 2016. That’s just in time to put in proper perspective the latest annual rankings from U.S. News & World Report (law schools in mid-March) and Am Law (big firms on May 1). The paperback is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Now on to today’s post…]

Wishful thinking is never a sound strategy for success.

“I don’t see legal education as being in crisis at all,” said Kellye Testy, the new president of the Association of American Law Schools and dean of the University of Washington Law School. She made the observation on January 5, 2016 — the eve of the nation’s largest gathering of law professors.

Perhaps her declaration made attendees more comfortable. Unfortunately, it’s not true.

The Trend! The Trend!

Law deans and professors cite the dramatic declines in applicants since 2010 as proof of law school market self-correction. Dean Testy echoed that approach: “I think there is a steadying out now after quite a crash in the number of students our schools are admitting….”

Two points about that comment. First, the decline in the number of applicants since 2010 is real, but that year may not be the best baseline from which to measure the significance of the drop in subsequent years. From 2005 to 2008, the number of applicants was already declining — from 99,000 to 83,000. But the Great Recession reversed that downward trend — moving the number back up to 88,000 by 2010 as many undergraduates viewed law school as a place to wait for three years while the economy improved.

Viewed over the entire decade that began in 2005, the “drop” since 2010 was from a temporarily inflated level. If the roughly four percent annual reduction that occurred from 2005 to 2008 had continued without interruption to 2014, the result would have been about 65,000 applicants for the fall of 2014, compared to the actual number of 56,000. That difference of 9,000 applicants doesn’t look like a “crash.”

A More Troubling Trend

Second and more importantly, many law schools solved their reduced applicant pool problem by increasing admission rates. Overall, law schools admitted almost 80 percent of applicants for the fall of 2014. Compare that to 2005 when the admission rate was only 59 percent.

During the same period, the number of applicants dropped by 40,000, but the number of admissions declined by only 12,000. Countering the impact of fewer applicants to keep tuition revenues flowing meant lowering admission standards. The ripple effects are now showing up in declining bar passage rates for first-time takers.

Student Enlightenment Interrupted

Transparency has given students access to data that should produce wiser decisions. Until the current application cycle, better information was contributing to the recent decline in the number of law school applicants. But the relentless promotional efforts of law school faculty and administrators may be interrupting that trend. Compared to last year, the number of applicants is up.

But law schools aren’t solely to blame. Responsibility for persistently dubious decisions also rests on those making them. A December 22 article in The Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Helps Shaky Colleges Cope with Bad Student Loans, includes this unfortunate example:

“Anthony C. Johns, 32 years old, regrets accumulating $40,000 in debt while attending Texas College, a private college in Tyler. He says he graduated in 2007 with an English degree but couldn’t land a full-time job.

“‘I think I applied for everything on CareerBuilder from teaching to banking,’ says Mr. Johns, who has defaulted on his Texas College loans. ‘Default was very embarrassing.’ Since then, he has enrolled in law school and borrowed $30,000 to pay for his first year.'”

The emphasis is mine.

The Biggest Problems Remain

According to LinkedIn, someone named Anthony C. Johns graduated from Texas College in 2007 and is currently a student at the Charlotte School of Law. That’s one of the Infilaw consortium of three for-profit law schools — Charlotte, Arizona Summit, and Florida Coastal. Owned by private equity interests, the Infilaw schools — like many others — survive only because unrestricted federal student loans come with no mechanism that holds schools accountable for graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

Ten months after graduation, Charlotte School of Law’s full-time long-term bar passage-required placement rate for 2014 graduates was 34 percent. The average law school loan debt of its 2014 graduates was $140,000. If Anthony Johns regretted accumulating $40,000 in college debt, wait until he’s taken a retrospective look at law school.

You Be The Judge

Perhaps Dean Testy is right and there is no crisis in legal education. Or perhaps it depends on the definition of crisis and how to measure it. When a problem gets personal, it feels different.

Since 2011 when the ABA first required law schools to report the types of employment their graduates obtained, over 40 percent of all graduates have been unable to find full-time long-term employment requiring bar passage within ten months of receiving their degrees.

Now let’s make those numbers a bit more personal. Saddled with six-figure law school debt, many recent law graduates might consider crisis exactly the right word to describe their situation. Where you stand depends on where you sit.