2015: THE YEAR THAT THE LAW SCHOOL CRISIS ENDED (OR NOT) — PART I

Remember that you read it here first: In 2015, many law school deans and professors will declare that the law school crisis is over. After five years of handwringing, relatively minor curriculum changes at most schools, and no improvement whatsoever in the mechanism for funding legal education, the storm has passed. All is well. What a relief.

The building blocks for this house of cards start with first-year law school enrollment that is now below 38,000 – a level not seen since the mid-1970s when there were 53 fewer law schools. The recent drop in the absolute number of future attorneys seems impressive, but without the context of the demand for lawyers, it’s meaningless in assessing proximity to market equilibrium, which remains far away.

The Search for Demand

To boost the projected demand side of the equation, the rhetoric of illusory equilibrium often turns to the “degrees-awarded-per-capita” argument that Professor Ted Seto of Loyola Law School – Los Angeles floated in June 2013. His premise: “Demand for legal services…probably increases as population increases.”

“Unless something truly extraordinary has happened to non-cyclical demand,” Seto continued, “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.”

If only wishing could make it so. The economic recovery did, indeed, continue, but the hoped for increase in attorney demand was nowhere to be found. When Seto posted his analysis, total legal services employment (including non-lawyers) at the end of May 2013 was 1,133,800. At the end of November 2014, it was 1,133,700.

Follow That Dream

Professor Rene Reich-Graefe of Western New England University School of Law relied on a similar per capita approach (among other dubious arguments) to assert that today’s students are about to enter “the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country.” His students sure hope he’s right. Only 49 out of 133 members of the Western New England Law class of 2013 — 37 percent — obtained full-time long-term JD-required jobs within nine months of graduation.

It’s easy to hypothesize that population growth should increase the demand for everything, including attorneys. But it’s more precise to say that population growth is relevant to the demand for attorneys only insofar as such growth occurs among those who can actually afford a lawyer. (The degrees-per-capita argument also ignores the profound ways that technological change has reduced the demand for lawyers across many segments of the profession.)

The ABA and the U. S. Department of Labor’s Bureau Labor Statistics have added two new factors that will feed false optimism in 2015. This post considers the ABA’s unfortunate action. Part II will cover the BLS’s contribution to continuing confusion.

The ABA Misfires Again

Since it began requiring law schools to report detailed employment outcomes for their most recent graduates, the overall full-time long-term JD-required employment rate has hovered around 55 percent (excluding law school-funded jobs). For a long time, the cutoff date for schools to report their most recent graduates’ employment status to the ABA (and U.S. News) has been February 15 following the year of graduation.

Starting with the class of 2014, law schools will get an additional month during which their graduates can try to find jobs before schools have to report class-wide employment results. When the employment status cutoff date moves from February 15 to March 15, the reported FTLT JD-required employment rate will go up. Comparisons with prior year outcomes (nine months after graduation) will be disingenuous, but law deans and professors touting an upswing in the legal job market will make them. Market equilibrium, they will proclaim, has made its way to legal education.

The stated reason for the ABA change was that the February 15 cutoff had an unfair impact on schools whose graduates took the bar exam in states reporting results late in the fall, especially New York and California. Schools in those states, the argument went, suffered lower employment rates solely because their graduates couldn’t secure jobs until they had passed the bar. Another month would help their job numbers.

In July 2013, Professor Deborah Merritt offered powerful objections to the ABA’s proposed change: The evidence does not support the principal reason for the change; moving the cutoff date would impair the ability to make yearly comparisons at a time when the profession is undergoing dramatic transformation; prospective students would not have the most recent employment information as they decide where to send their tuition deposits in April; the change would further diminish public trust in law schools and the ABA. The new March 15 cutoff passed by a 10-to-9 vote.

Watch For Obfuscation

In a few months when the new 10-month employment figures for the class of 2014 show “improvement” over the prior year’s nine-month results, think apples-to-oranges as you contemplate whose interests the ABA is really serving. Consider, too, whether any macroeconomic projections of attorney demand are even probative when there is a huge variation in employment opportunities across law schools.

At 33 law schools (including Western New England School of Law), fewer than 40 percent of 2013 graduates found full-time long-term employment requiring a JD. At most of those schools, the vast majority of students incurred staggering six-figure debt for their degrees. (At Western New England, it was $120,677 for the class of 2013.)

In the some corners of the profession, federal student loan dollars are subsidizing an ugly business.

The Most Unfortunate Comment Award to Date

The words seem so innocuous — “federally guaranteed student loans.” But what do they mean when someone actually defaults and the government has to make good on its guarantee? A recent article in The New York Times provides the answer.

A brief review of the business model

This post is the latest in what became my unintended series on the law school business model. It began with The Wall Street Journal’s misrepresentation in a lead op-ed piece. The Journal claimed that Congress made student loans non-dischargeable in 1976 because of widespread abuse. That is, graduates benefited from government loans and then declared bankruptcy on the eve of lucrative careers to avoid their debt. There’s no delicate way to put this: The WSJ was perpetuating a thirty-five-year-old myth.

Then I considered law schools that offer tuition discounts in the form of merit scholarships. There’s no mystery there: a secretive process of awarding money facilitates an individualized approach to pricing that maximizes tuition revenues while enhancing a school’s U.S. News ranking.

Most recently, I turned to yet another element of the current law school business model: raising the list price of tuition while reserving the flexibility to move lower as needed to attract particular candidates.

Follow the money

Now consider the source of all that tuition money. Some people are able to pay their own way, regardless of the cost. But they’re in the minority. Matt Leichter reports that the 44,000 law graduates in the class of 2010 took on $3.6 billion in debt, up sharply from $3.1 billion only two years earlier. The number is climbing as tuition goes up.

The chances that recent graduates will secure a job requiring a law degree are about 50-50. Although others will get non-legal jobs that pay reasonably well, the ranks of new lawyers with loans they can’t afford to repay is growing.

So what?

Students now have an income-based repayment (IBR) option for federal loans; that may afford some relief. But as Professor William Henderson explains in “The Law School Tuition Bubble,” two problems arise. First, dedicating fifteen percent of income for the requisite twenty-five years of a total IBR plan is akin to a permanent tax on the already low incomes of those lawyers. Forget about saving for retirement or funding their own kids’ higher education.

Second, those IBR participants who make it all the way to the end of the twenty-five years will have their remaining loan balances forgiven. That will add more debt that that the federal treasury will bear — for anyone who worries about such things.

Default

For recent graduates with limited job prospects, IBR is better than nothing. But some will default on their loans, just as their predecessors have. This poses no problem for law schools; they’ve already collected their tuition money and don’t have to return it.

Default poses no problem for lenders, either. That’s because educational debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, except in rare cases that satisfy the “undue hardship” requirement.

Moreover, the federal guarantee kicks in for private lenders, at which point the government foots the bill. But that’s not the end of the story. As the Times article explains, the newest growth industry is student loan debt collection. Last year, the government paid more than $1.4 billion to debt collection organizations it hired to track down student defaulters.

A Most Unfortunate Comment

For anyone who doubts that this is unapologetic intergenerational exploitation of the young by the old, consider these comments from Jerry Ashton, a consultant for the debt collection industry and the winner of the most Unfortunate Comment Award to date:

“As I wandered around the crowd of NYU students at their rally protesting student debt at the end of February [2011], I couldn’t believe the accumulated wealth they represented – for our industry. It was lip-smacking.”

Ashton included a photograph of several students to which he added these details: “a girl wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the fine sum of $90,000, another with $65,000, a third with $20,000 and over there a really attractive $120,000 was printed on another shirt.”

Someday this will all come crashing down. I fear that people like Ashton — and merger/acquisitions specialist Mark Russell, who described student loans as the debt collection industry’s “new oil well” — will make money on that event. too. Shame on them. Shame on all of us.