MORE JOBS, EXCEPT FOR LAWYERS

During April 2014, job growth exceeded economists’ expectations. The recovery continues, but one line item in the latest detailed Bureau of Labor Statistics report should be particularly troubling to some law school deans and professors who are making bold predictions about the future.

The Facts

As the economy added 288,000 new jobs last month, total legal services employment (including lawyers and non-lawyers) declined by 1,200 positions from March 2014. A single monthly result doesn’t mean much. But over the past year, total legal services employment has increased by only 700 jobs.

In fact, according to the BLS, since December 2007 net legal services employment has shrunk by 37,000 jobs. Meanwhile, law schools have been awarding 40,000 new JD degrees annually for more than a decade.

The Denier’s Plight

Some law school deans and professors still object to any characterization of this situation as a “crisis” in legal education. In fact, one professor proclaimed last summer that now is still a great time to go to law school because a lawyer shortage would be upon us by the fall of 2015! Before rejoicing that we’ve almost reached that promised land, note that in 2011 the same professor, Ted Seto at Loyola Law School – Los Angeles, similarly predicted that the short-term problem of lawyer oversupply would lend itself to a quick and self-correcting resolution when the business cycle turned upward.

Well, the upward turn has been underway for several years, but significant growth in the number of new legal jobs hasn’t accompanied it. Nevertheless, tuition has continued to rise. For prelaw students now contemplating six-figure JD debt, law school deniers have a soothing argument: A degree from anywhere is well worth the cost to anyone who gets it.

Using aggregate data, the deniers ignore dramatic difference in individual outcomes for schools and students. Some deniers even use their lifetime JD-value calculations to defend unrivaled tuition growth rates for law schools generally. In somewhat contradictory rhetoric, they simultaneously promote income-based loan repayment plans as a panacea.

Leadership?

Recently, one dean assured me privately that deniers have now become outliers. If so, the overall reaction of deans as a group remains troubling. In particular, law schools have countered a precipitous drop in applicants with soaring acceptance rates. The likely result will be a fall 2014 class somewhere between 35,000 and 38,000 first-year students.

Likewise, law school sales pitches have devolved into cynical efforts at selling something other than the practice of law. They market the versatility of a JD as preparation for anything else that law graduates might want to do with their lives. But so is medicine. So are lots of things. So what? Medical schools train doctors. Isn’t the core mission of law schools to train lawyers? What will remain after we abandon that sense of professional purpose and identity?

Practicing Law? Oh, I Could Have Done That. 

All of this raises a question: How do the law school deans and professors in denial about the state of things deal with unpleasant facts that don’t fit the world view they’re trying to sell others? Ignore them. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, as the self-designated Wizard of Oz might say to Dorothy. Somehow, we’ll get you back to Kansas — where associate admissions dean Steven Freedman at the University of Kansas recently went public with his denial.

Like similar predictions, Freedman’s analysis is suspect. For example, his projections of a lawyer shortage by 2017-2018 ignore the excess inventory of new law graduates that the system has produced over the past several years (and is still producing). (In a follow-up comment to his own post on “The Faculty Lounge,” Freedman defends his resulting calculations on the unsupported grounds that “the vast majority of them retired or changed careers” — an assumption, he acknowledges, that contradicts the real world observations and data of Jim Leipold, executive director of NALP.)

Even worse, Freedman offers a general recommendation to every prospective student — “Enroll today!” was the title of his first installment at “The Faculty Lounge.” But he fails to mention that employment outcomes vary enormously across law schools. His post’s subtitle — “Why 2017-2018 Will Be a Fantastic Time to Graduate from Law School” — is fraught with the danger that accompanies the absence of a nuanced and individualized message.

Ironically, in the real world of clients, judges, and juries, attorneys who ignore the key facts in a case usually lose. Eventually, they have trouble making a living. Someday, perhaps the law school deniers will have that experience, first-hand.

A COMMENDABLE (AND COURAGEOUS) COMMENT AWARD

As the executive director of National Association for Law Placement (NALP) — the organization that sets the rules whereby big law firm employers and their prospective new hires find each other — James Leipold has a tough job. Sometimes, NALP has looked like a victim of regulatory capture. Students’ interests have often taken a back seat to two constituencies that wield far more economic power, namely, law schools and big law firms.

Such power was one reason that NALP initially “back-pedaled” in early 2010, when big firms balked at NALP’s request to provide detailed information about equity partners’ gender and race. At the time, Leipold acknowledged that some firms threatened to withhold all information from the annual NALP employer directory, which “represents an important revenue source for us.”

Another example of big law firm influence over NALP is the evolution of the rules governing employment offers — including the powerlessness of students when a big firm unilaterally rescinds a previously accepted one. But NALP’s shortcomings are topics for another day.

Today’s commendation goes to Leipold because he recently stood up to deans who wanted him to provide prospective law students with a “better message” about the legal job market. That is, they wanted him to lie. Leipold said he was “surprised” at this turn of events, including deans who asked him to describe the job market as “good.” He refused. But his real act of courage was in revealing that some deans were applying such pressure. They should be ashamed. And they should be named.

Nothing new

Many deans have been hyping their schools with misleading employment statistics for a long time. Truth is finally catching up to a lot of them, notably with the ABA’s newly required data. Harsh reality hit with the news that, nine months after graduation, slightly more than half of all 2011 law graduates were able to get full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage. The recent past has been bad and the current picture is ugly. So some deans have tried to shape perceptions about the future.

Leipold rightly resisted. The employment prospects for law graduates generally are not likely to brighten any time soon. Leipold could have said even more about that: there are still far more law school applicants than places for them; most estimates project that over the next decade, schools will produce twice as many law graduates as the number of legal jobs available for them. Even at the so-called pinnacle of the profession — big law firms — the total number of attorneys has yet to return to pre-recession levels.

The case for names

What will stop this insanity? Unfortunately, the problematic deans are responding to institutional pressures. That’s because law schools have become large cash cows for their universities. The impulse to run a school as a business that maximizes short-term profits is irresistible to them and their superiors. Every incentive they see encourages them to pump-and-dump: pump up demand for law students and dump debt-ridden graduates on a glutted market. Their unemployed graduates become someone else’s problem.

It turns out that the someone else is not just the victimized students themselves. Eventually, the profession itself suffers. Staggering student debt will haunt some graduates forever because bankruptcy won’t discharge it. Income-based repayment programs will help some of them, but as Professor William Henderson observes, taxpayers could wind up paying large portions of those participants’ ultimate obligations when the federal government picks up the tab for residual unpaid debt.

Will anything make these deans stop? The villains are giving all other deans a bad rap. They know who they are. Now, James Leipold does, too. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to learn their names. Where all else has failed to alter unfortunate behavior, maybe public humiliation will help. Nothing else seems to be working.

THE RHETORIC OF MARGINALIZATION

By now, just about everyone knows about Rush Limbaugh’s vile rant against the third-year Georgetown Law student who had the temerity to speak her mind before Congress. This post isn’t about the subject matter of her testimony. Whether and which employers should provide health insurance plans that include contraception as a preventive care benefit for their employees will remain controversial, even after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

This post isn’t about Rush Limbaugh, either. He is what he is. To some people, he speaks truth in a straightforward, albeit colorful manner. To others, he’s a carnival barker whose hypocritical aim is to rile up 99-percenters in ways that feed his ego and divert attention from his own stunning wealth.

Climate of incivility

Rather, it’s about a climate of incivility that reserves a special rhetorical vitriol for women, especially those like Sandra Fluke. She is smart, articulate, and on the cusp of entering the legal profession from a top law school. Whatever else she learned at Georgetown, it probably didn’t include dealing with public descriptions of her that included words such as “slut” or “prostitute.” Or what to do when someone with a national radio following suggests posting internet videos of her intimate moments “so taxpayers can get their money’s worth.”

Even if he was telling a prolonged off-color joke, Limbaugh’s language was crude. But that’s because it expressed equally crude thoughts. The larger problem is that Limbaugh may have said what many other people — mostly men — were thinking. Any doubters need look no further than Gary McCoy’s cartoon in the March 7 issue of the New York Daily News or other comments throughout the blogosphere echoing support for Limbaugh’s sentiments.

More disturbing is the fact that such attitudes aren’t limited to criticizing women who speak in favor of contraception for health plans. Even conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, who was one of President Reagan’s speechwriters, spoke about the broader issue on the March 11, 2012 episode of “Meet The Press”:

“One of the big problems with discourse in America is the way — forget left and right for a second — it’s the way women are being spoken of. Women in public life. Women in politics. Women and policy questions…Somebody has to stop and notice that this sounds like a horrible, misogynistic war on women. We have got to stop it. I feel like the grown ups have to step in…Left, right and center, it’s getting horrible for women now. Let’s stop it.”

A joke is one thing, but…

Noonan’s complaint goes to the language of marginalization. Relegating another human being to a distasteful subcategory of the species makes evaluating that person on the merits unnecessary. At a minimum, it infects the assessment. As the number of powerful females grows, words of marginalization become interpersonal weapons of mass destruction. Such words are also like cockroaches — for every one that crawls into the public light, a hundred more thrive in darkness.

What’s the relevance to the legal profession? None, some might argue. After all women have risen from a quarter of all law students in 1975 to almost half today. Yet something is amiss. Just look at the dismal representation of women at the top of big law: they comprise only 16 percent of equity partners in firms responding to the latest NALP survey. (Half of all firms refused to respond at all. Draw your own inferences.)

Most of the men running large firms aren’t Limbaughs. In fact, there are many benign reasons for the absence of equity partner gender parity in large firms. But I don’t think those benign reasons are a complete explanation. Drilling down into the growing top-to-bottom compensation gap within equity partnerships would probably reveal another dramatic manifestation of the problem. Whether public or private, the thought is the father to the deed; words of marginalization can bridge the two.

The gender-specific aspect to all of this is both vicious and hypocritical. Would Limbaugh have used such reprehensible language to describe another man? What if, during an interlude between one of his four marriages, he had taken Viagra or Cialis and had a prescription drug benefit that paid for it? What would that make him or any other similarly situated male?

Whatever the answers, I have no desire to watch any of Limbaugh’s videos.

DO THEY COUNT AS BILLABLES?

In “New Lawyers, New Classes,” the Wall Street Journal reports on firms sending their attorneys through business-education type programs. Describing one full-time four week example, it states the obvious: “[L]aw firms aren’t billing the 160 training hours to clients.”

But the article is silent on a more interesting question: If a lawyer has to devote 160 hours — or any other amount — to firm-required business education, will that time count toward minimum billable hour expectations?

1958 ABA pamphlet suggested that a reasonable full-time schedule produced 1,300 client hours a year. That’s right, 1,300. Today, senior partners who had no minimum billables requirements as associates run firms where some new attorney orientation sessions dictate monthly targets, as well as annual ones. Big law associates average more than 2,000 billables a year. Adding another 160 hours — a month’s worth of time — for firm-required education is no small matter.

During year-end reviews, associates typically receive spreadsheets detailing their hours by category: client billables, recruiting, training, pro bono, personal, and so forth. (Hat-tip to The American Lawyer‘s A-List, which prompts many firms to count pro bono hours as billable time.)

How about training? Back in January 2008 when law firms were more concerned about attracting and retaining good associates than they are now, the New York Times found firms attacking enormous associate attrition rates with initiatives aimed at keeping the keepers. But even that didn’t always extend to giving billable credit for training.

For example, the Times wrote, “Strasburger & Price, a national firm based in Dallas, announced last October [2007] that it was decreasing the hours new associates were expected to log, to 1,600 from 1,920 annually. (Lest you think those lawyers will be able to go home early, however, note that newcomers will now be asked to spend 550 hours a year in training sessions and shadowing senior lawyers.)”

According to the NALP directory, Strasberger’s policy is unchanged, but at least it’s transparent. Many big law counterparts have remained opaque.

Consider the public positions of the three firms in the WSJ article — Debevoise & Plimpton; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. In their current NALP listings, none discloses its average associate billables for 2009 or 2010. But that doesn’t mean those in charge aren’t watching hours closely.

According to the Journal, “Debevoise said its associate billable hours rose by more than 10% in 2010 and are up by even more so far this year.” To what? The article doesn’t say — and neither does the firm.

Earlier this year, Milbank’s chairman, Mel Immergut, noted that billables were up, but “still low compared to what [they have] historically been.” Again, no hint of what those levels were or are.

Skadden’s culture is no secret. It became the subject of unwanted attention after one of its associates, Lisa Johnstone, died in June at age 32 — reportedly after weeks of extremely long hours.

All three firms state on their NALP forms that they have no minimum billable hours requirement. Debevoise’s website says that billable and pro bono hours “are monitored by partners to assure an associate’s full involvement in our practice and to attempt to spread workloads fairly.”

So perhaps there’s no need to worry about how those 160 business-education training hours get counted after all. Debevoise cares only about assuring full involvement and fairness for its associates, not whether they meet a minimum number of billables. Like many firms, Milbank actually uses its training programs as a sales tool: “Get paid to go to Harvard,” its website proudly proclaims. Skadden will always be Skadden.

But give credit where it’s deserved: Debevoise ranked an impressive 16th in overall mid-level associate satisfaction this year. Milbank and Skadden fared less well — placing 68th and 69th, respectively, out of 126. (The unfortunate backstory is that overall satisfaction for the survey group dropped to another record low.)

Interestingly, all three responded to this query on the NALP form:

“Billable hours credit for training time.”

Debevoise and Milbank answered “Y.” Skadden said “N.”

“Credit” toward what? Unless billables matter to evaluating or compensating associates, wouldn’t firms without a minimum requirement answer “N/A”?

Maybe their stated answers are typos.

IMPROVING PROSPECTS — BUT FOR WHOM?

Life is just a matter of perspective. For example, here’s some apparently good news:

— The legal sector added 1,500 jobs in April.

— Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog cited a recent article in The Guardian for the proposition that the U.K. might actually have a shortage of lawyers next year. Could the U.S. be far behind?

— NALP’s Executive Director James Leipold noted that, along with an overall attorney employment rate of 88.3% for the class of 2009, “the most recent recruitment cycle showed signs of a small bounce in the recruiting activity of law firms, a sign that better economic times likely lie ahead.”

Now consider each headline a bit differently:

— “Legal sector” isn’t limited to attorneys; more than 44,000 new law school graduates hit the market every year.

The Guardian article relies solely on a report from the College of Law that has an interest in encouraging applications to its program for prospective solicitors. More than one comment to the initial report expressed angry skepticism about the College’s short-term motives. Where have I heard that before?

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, for the entire ten-year period from 2008 to 2018, net U.S. attorney employment will increase by only 100,000. Even if all aging attorneys retired as they turned 65, there aren’t enough of them to make room for all the newbies. In 1970, for example, law schools awarded only about one-third of the number of JDs conferred in 2010.

— To his credit, NALP’s Leipold went behind the 88% employment rate for the class of 2009. The resulting caveats are significant.

First, the percentage employed are graduates “for whom employment status was known.” Who’s excluded? Who knows?

Second, nearly 25 percent of all reported jobs were temporary; more than 10 percent were part-time.

Third, only 70 percent “held jobs for which a J.D. was required.” Unfortunately, law schools don’t offer tuition refunds (or relief from student loans) for education that was unnecessary for their graduates’ actual employment opportunities. That doesn’t surprise me. (See “Law School Deception.”)

Finally, more than 20 percent of employed graduates from the class of 2009 “were still looking for work.” Beneath the veneer of superficially good news — having a job — career dissatisfaction continues to eat away at too many of the profession’s best and brightest in yet another generation.

That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t go to law school. It means that they should think carefully about it first, starting with this question: why do I want to be a lawyer and will the reality of the job match my expectations?

Turning the employment subject toward big law leads to one more lesson on perspective.

A day after the Ashby Jones and James Leipold articles, the WSJ‘s Nathan Koppel summarized big law’s continuing job-shedding: the NLJ 250 lost another 3,000 in 2010, bringing their total decrease since 2008 to 9,500. They may be hiring some new associates, but they’re getting rid of many more.

NALP expects to release its 2010 employment data in May. But every big law leader knows that May’s true importance lies in a much more significant event: annual publication of the Am Law 100. For some partners, pre-release anxiety is palpable, if not paralyzing.

This year, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 went up by over 8% — to almost $1.4 million. For context, that surpasses 2007, which was the peak of an uninterrupted five-year PPP run-up. Pretty stunning for an economy that remains difficult for so many. Gross revenues increased as overall headcount dropped by almost 3%. More revenues from fewer attorneys meant more billables — mislabeled as higher “productivity” in big law terms — for the chosen. (See “The Misery Index.”) As jobs remained scarce and associate hours climbed, equity partner earnings continued their ascent.

How much is enough? For some people, the answer will always be more; short-term metrics that maximize current PPP guide their way. Life is easy when deceptively objective numbers make solutions simple, reflection unnecessary, and the long-term someone else’s problem. It’s just a matter of perspective.

A NEW METRIC: THE MISERY INDEX

Let’s call it what it is.

Large law firms and their management consultants have redefined a word — productivity — to contradict its true meaning. Recent reports from Hildebrandt and Citi measure it as everyone does: average billable hours per attorney.

No one questions this perversion because the prevailing business model’s primary goal is maximizing partner profits. Billables times hourly rates produce gross revenues. More is better and the misnomer — productivity — persists.

The Business Dictionary defines productivity as the “relative measure of the efficiency of a person [or] system…in converting inputs into useful outputs.” But the relevant output for an attorney shouldn’t be total hours spent on tasks; it’s useful work product that meets client needs. Total elapsed time without regard to the quality of the result reveals nothing about a worker’s value. More hours often mean the opposite of true productivity.

Common sense says that effort on the fourteenth hour of a day can’t be as valuable as that exerted during hour six. Fatigue compromises effectiveness. That’s why the Department of Transportation imposes rest periods after interstate truckers’ prolonged stints behind the wheel. Logically, absurdly high billables should result in compensation penalties, but prevailing big law economics dictate otherwise.

Here’s a partial cure. Rather than mislabel attorney billables as measures of productivity, an index should permit excessive hours to convey their true meaning: attorney misery. The Misery Index would be a natural corollary to NALP’s survey of minimum billable hour requirements. Attorneys now accept as given the 2,000 hour threshold that most firms maintain, even though current big law leaders faced no mandatory minimum levels when they were associates. As Yale Law School describes in a useful memo, 2,000 is a lot. But even if the 2,000-hour bell can’t be unrung, the Misery Index could reveal a firm’s culture.

To construct this metric for a given firm, start with attorneys billing fewer than 2,000 hours annually (including pro bono and genuine firm-related activities such as recruiting, training, mentoring, client development, and management); those lawyers wouldn’t count toward their firm’s Misery Index. However, at each 100-hour increment above 2,000, the percentage of attorneys reaching each higher numerical category would be added. To reflect the increasing lifestyle costs of marginal billables, attorneys with the most hours would count at every 100-hour interval preceding their own. Separate indices should exist for associates (AMI) and partners (PMI).

The Misery Index would reveal distinctions that firmwide averages blur. For example, Firm A has an Associate Misery Index of 125, calculated as follows:

50% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

50% > 2,000 = 50  AMI points

40% > 2,100 = 40

25% > 2,200 = 25

10% > 2,300 = 10

None > 2,400

AMI: 125

Firm B’s AMI of 315 describes a much different place:

10% of associates bill fewer than 2,000 hours = 0 AMI points

90% > 2,000 = 90 points

75% > 2,100 = 75

60% > 2,200 = 60

45% > 2,300 = 45

30% > 2,400 = 30

15% > 2,500 = 15

None > 2,600

AMI: 315

A Misery Index would aid decision-making, especially for new graduates. Some would prefer firms with a high one; most wouldn’t. A Misery Index above 300 might prompt questions about the physical health of a firm’s attorneys; a Misery Index of zero — no one working more than 2,000 hours — might prompt questions about the health of the firm itself. Big disparities between partners (PMI) and associates (AMI) would be revealing, too.

Data collection is problematic. NALP won’t ask for the information and most firms won’t supply it — unless clients demand it. (In an earlier article, I explained why they should.) Alternatively, individual attorneys could provide the information anonymously, similar to The American Lawyer’s annual mid-level associate surveys.

Complementing the Misery Index would be firm-specific Attrition Rates by class year from starting associate to first year equity partner. NALP’s last report — before the 2008 financial crisis — showed big law’s five-year associate attrition rates skyrocketing to more than eighty percent, but significant differences existed among firms.

The Misery Index and Attrition Rates would be interesting additions to Am Law‘s “A-List” criteria that many big firms heed. Imagine an equity partner meeting that included this agenda item: “Reducing Our Misery Index and Attrition Rates.” It would certainly be a departure from scenes and themes in my best-selling legal thriller, The Partnership.

Big law is filled with free market disciples who urge better information as a panacea, as well as metrics to communicate it. Here’s their chance.

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION

Last Sunday, the NY Times asked: Are law schools deceiving prospective students into incurring huge debt for degrees that aren’t worth it?

Of course they are. The U.S. News is an aider and abettor. As the market for new lawyers shrinks, a key statistic in compiling the publication’s infamous rankings is “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation.” Any job qualifies — from joining Cravath to waiting tables. According to the Times, the most recent average for all law schools is 93%. If gaming the system to produce that number doesn’t cause students to ignore the U.S. News’ rankings altogether, nothing will.

My friend, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law Professor Bill Henderson, told the Times that looking at law schools’ self-reported employment numbers made him feel “dirty.” I assume he’s concerned that prospective students rely on that data in deciding whether and where to attend law school. I agree with him.

But an equally telling kick in the head is buried in the lengthy Times article: Most graduates who achieve their initial objectives — starting positions in big firms paying $160,000 salaries — quickly lose the feeling that they’re winners. Certainly, they must be better off than the individuals chronicled in the article. What could be worse than student debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the home?

Try a legal job with grueling hours, boring work, and little prospect of a long-term career. Times reporter David Segal summarized the cliche’: “Law school is a pie-eating contest where first prize is more pie.”

These distressing outcomes for students and associates aren’t inevitable. In fact, they’re relatively new phenomena with a common denominator: Business school-type metrics that make short-term pursuit of the bottom line sterile, objective, and laudable. Numbers prove who’s best and they don’t lie.

Law school administrators manipulate employment data because they have ceded their reasoned judgment to mindless ranking criteria. (“[M]illions of dollars [are] riding on students’ decisions about where to go to law school, and that creates real institutional pressures,” says one dean who believes that pandering to U.S. News rankings isn’t gaming the system; it’s making a school better.)

Likewise, today’s dominant large firm culture results from forces that produced the surge in average equity partner income for the Am Law 50 — from $300,000 in 1985 to $1.5 million in 2009. Leveraged pyramids might work for a few at the top; for everyone else — not so much.

The glut of law school applicants, as well as graduates seeking big firm jobs to repay their loans, leaves law school administrators and firm managers with no economic incentive to change their ways. The profession needs visionaries who are willing to resist perpetuating the world in which debt-laden graduates are becoming the 21st century equivalent of indentured servants.

Henderson calls for law school transparency in the form of quality employment statistics. I endorse his request and offer a parallel suggestion: Through their universities’ undergraduate prelaw programs, law schools should warn prospective students about the path ahead before their legal journeys begin.

Some students enter law school expecting to become Atticus Finch or the lead attorneys on Law & Order. Others pursue large firm equity partnerships as a way to riches. Few realize that career dissatisfaction plagues most of the so-called winners who land what they once thought were the big firm jobs of their dreams.

A legal degree can lead to many different careers. The urgency of loan repayment schedules creates a practical reality that pushes most students in big law’s direction. If past is prologue, the vast majority of them will not be happy there. They should know the truth — the whole truth — before they make their first law school tuition payments. Minimizing unwelcome surprises will create a more satisfied profession.

Meanwhile, can we all agree to ignore U.S. News rankings and rely on our own judgments instead of its stupid criteria? Likewise, can big law managers move away from their myopic focus on the current year’s equity partner profits as a definitive culture-determining metric? I didn’t think so.