LEARNING FOUR LESSONS FROM FAILURE

On October 2, 2015, Northwestern University ended a six-year experiment — the two-year accelerated JD. Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez deserves credit for pulling the plug. Now comes the important part: learning the right lessons from failure.

Lesson #1: Beware of Public Relations Hype

With much fanfare in June 2008, Dean Rodriguez’s predecessor, David Van Zandt, released a document outlining his new long-range strategic vision: “Plan 2008: Preparing Great Leaders for a Changing World.” The centerpiece was an accelerated JD program whereby the school jammed three academic years of ABA-required curriculum into two calendar years.

Van Zandt worked tirelessly to sell the program. From local talk show appearances to speeches at law schools, he never let up. But one of his stated goals should have generated concern. Even as the market for lawyers plummeted, his keynote address at a February 2009 Southwestern Law Review symposium explained that he hoped to “tap a different population of students to expand our pool of potential applicants.” In particular, he wanted to “reach those who were planning on going to MBA programs.”

In other words, he offered a prescription for what the profession needed least: more law students who had been on their way to business school until the prospect of a Northwestern accelerated JD appeared.

Lesson #2: Dig Deeper

A program that “accelerated” a student through law school in two years instead of three sounded like an unambiguously good idea. But beyond the superficial appeal were troubling realities.

Students in the program started with a Web-based course even before they arrived on campus. In May, they began full-time study. In the fall, they joined first-year students in the traditional three-year program while also adding an extra course. For anyone on the two-year accelerated path, an already precious commodity — time during the first year to integrate experiences while contemplating one’s place in a diverse, challenging and changing profession — disappeared.

Even worse, Northwestern missed an opportunity. Total tuition for the two-year program was the same as that for the three-year degree. Accelerated students just paid more in tuition each semester. According to Van Zandt, students still benefitted financially because they could enter the job market sooner. Never mind how dismal that market remained.

Lesson #3: Ignore the Spin 

Many deans claim to be remaking their schools in ways that respond to the current crisis in legal education. For the sake of the profession, let’s hope that’s true. (But see Lesson #1 above.)

Even so, cramming three years of legal education into two was never particularly creative or innovative. For example, Southwestern Law School started its accelerated JD program in 1974. (Southwestern also has dismal full-time long-term JD-required employment rates for recent graduates.)

After leaving the deanship to become president of the New School in 2010, Van Zandt continued his defense of the Northwestern AJD in an online July 25, 2011 New York Times op-ed. In the process, he earned one of my “Unfortunate Comment Awards.” That was four years ago.

Lesson #4: Beware of Motivated Reasoning

Van Zandt spoke often about the importance of markets and market-based decisions. But it took six years (and a new dean) before Northwestern responded to what the markets were telling it about the AJD. As Dean Rodriguez announced on October 2, the program failed to achieve its aspirational target of 40 AJD students per year (Van Zandt had hoped eventually to enroll 65 AJD students annually):

“[D]ealing with this smaller program,” he said, “has impacted our ability to serve the objectives and needs of all our law students.”

As schools pursue various efforts to reduce the cost and improve the content of legal education, perhaps they’ll learn one more lesson: Don’t wait years to admit a mistake.

TWO YEARS TO WHAT?

It’s no panacea. It may not even be a good idea. But in a recent New York Times op-ed, Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez and NYU law professor Samuel Estreicher endorsed a proposal allowing students to sit for the New York bar exam after only two years of law school:

“[I]t could make law school far more accessible to low-income students, help the next generation of law students avoid a heavy burden of debt and lead to improvements in legal education across the United States.”

The state’s top judge told a gathering of “legal educators, practitioners and judges that the concept deserves serious study,” according to the National Law Journal.

Sorting out the facts

If the New York proposal is adopted, what aspects of legal education might change? No one really knows, but the answer may be: less than some people think. That alone doesn’t make it a bad idea, but it could produce unintended consequences, too.

Most students who leave law school after two years will still have staggering debt. The average private law school graduate incurs $125,000 in loans; for public schools, it’s $75,000. Lopping off one-third would help, but it would still leave graduates with significant five-figure burdens.

No degrees

Unfortunately, the current discussion isn’t about eliminating the third year altogether and awarding JD degrees after two years, although it should be. ABA accreditation requirements block that definitive innovation. So do most law schools because many of them couldn’t survive the resulting loss of third-year tuition revenues.

Would a student who has already sunk $100,000 into two years of legal education decide that passing the bar alone was sufficient reward for that investment? Only if the value of the degree itself was worth less than the cost of a third year to get it.

Improving the third year

Finally, even assuming that many students availed themselves of the two-year option, how would most deans respond? In their op-ed, Rodriguez and Estreicher suggest that schools might improve third-year curriculum so that students would stay. But couldn’t schools do that now? Only a handful do.

Perhaps inadvertently, Rodriguez and Estreicher implicitly make the real point: only the threat of losing significant third-year tuition revenues will dramatically change most deans’ behavior. Deans may say that they’re in the business of trying to get students through law school economically, but when they have opportunities to act accordingly, few seem to make the effort. That’s because they’re actually in the business of maximizing their schools’ short-term metrics, including revenues and U.S. News rankings.

The decades-long explosion in tuition costs is one example. Another one appears in the Times op-ed, where Dean Rodriguez identifies his school’s “accelerated program that lets students pursue a three-year course of study in two years, allowing them to take the bar and enter the job market a year earlier.”

Rodriguez doesn’t mention that rushing through in two calendar years (thanks to summer classes and course overloads) won’t save students a penny on their total tuition expense. It’s two years for the price of three because, the school’s website observes, “The Law School prices tuitions based on the degree pursued rather than the length of enrollment.”

In fairness to Dean Rodriquez, he inherited the accelerated JD program and its pricing model from his predecessor, David Van Zandt. Among the program’s stated — and more dubious — goals has been to attract students who otherwise might not have gone to law school at all. Just what the profession has needed, right?

Taking chances with other people’s lives

Given their business models, many law schools seem likely to counteract any loss of third-year tuition revenues with larger entering classes. After all, that adjustment requires less work than improving curriculum, and total applicants overall still exceed the number of available spaces. Moreover, if the two-year option became popular, lowering the price of a legal education by one-third should increase demand, although the profession doesn’t need that, either.

What’s the correct approach to all of these unknown possibilities? According to the NLJ, Verizon’s general counsel Randall Milch urged throwing caution to the wind: “Analysis paralysis is our worst enemy here. If we are going to overanalyze, we’re never going to figure this out. In my opinion, we have to move and see what happens.”

There’s nothing quite like observing a real-life experiment on someone else.

A NEW LAW SCHOOL MISSION – PART II

The second and final installment of “Great Expectations Meet Painful Realities” — my latest contribution to the debate about the legal profession’s growing crisis — is now available in the December 2011 issue of Circuit Rider, the official publication of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association. My article begins on page 26. For those who are interested, here’s the link to Part I.

UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

The Case Against Law School” in last week’s NY Times opened with an article by former Northwestern Law School Dean David Van Zandt, whom I’ve never met. Regarded as a maverick in the legal academy, he’s now president of The New School. I don’t know how the Times selected its essayists, but Van Zandt earned my “Unfortunate Comment Award” with this:

“Law schools and their faculties have a vested interest in requiring students to spend more time on campus and more money at their schools.”

If he intended his revelation to be that of a whistle-blower, he blew the whistle on himself. Tackling vested interests that run contrary to what’s best for students should be a defining characteristic of leadership in higher education. But during his fifteen years as dean, he contributed uniquely to a problem he now decries — squeezing more money out of students.

Here’s how. Van Zandt was an outspoken advocate of running law schools as businesses and relying on misguided metrics to do it. One was the U.S. News rankings, which he publicly embraced and almost every other dean condemned. When it comes to money, the rankings methodology — so flawed in so many ways — rewards schools’ high expenditures (requiring high tuition) without regard to value.

Perhaps it’s coincidental, but consider the tuition trend during Van Zandt’s tenure: When he took over in 1995, three years’ tuition for a Northwestern law degree totaled $60,000. By 2008, it had more than doubled to third highest in the country. When he left in 2010, the degree cost $150,000 — just for tuition. Student law school debt has risen accordingly.

When used to run law schools, misguided metrics pose other perils to student welfare. For example, transfer students’ LSATs don’t count in the U.S. News calculus, but they’re lucrative additions to any law school’s bottom line. Under Van Zandt, Northwestern recruited transfers aggressively. But the resulting growth in graduating class size hasn’t served students who entered as 1Ls, especially in today’s job market.

Then there’s the accelerated JD — a flagship initiative of Van Zandt’s final long-range strategic plan that he still promotes from afar. The plan incorporated his view of law school as a business that placed special value on large firms. After all, they were key customers because of their metrics: Big law pays new graduates the highest starting salaries, thereby justifying ever-increasing tuition. This dubious short-term approach, along with his efforts to sell it, drew attention away from the school’s other vitally important strengths.

As for the students, acceleration buries first-years in additional courses to develop “core competencies” while reducing time for thoughtful reflection about their places in a diverse and challenging profession. Before implementing that plan, he should have read Scott Turow’s One L and reviewed big law’s associate attrition and career dissatisfaction rates.

Finally, students in the two-year accelerated program pay the same total tuition as the traditional three-year people because, according to the school’s website, “Northwestern Law prices tuition by the degree pursued rather than the length of enrollment.” That’s a choice, not an economic imperative.

Defending that choice in the Times, Van Zandt wrote, “The cost to the school [of the accelerated students] remains the same because the credit hours remain the same.” That’s a non-sequitur. Certainly, the accelerated group adds cost for its own first-year section — five required courses, plus negotiation and business school-type classes. But twenty-seven students  in the class of 2011 generated $4 million incremental tuition dollars during their two years. As Van Zandt elsewhere explained, after their first year “they are integrated with the rest of the students.” If so, the school’s marginal cost of accelerated students’ second-year credit hours should be minimal. Including them with everyone else should bring its average cost per student down, too.

It turns out that running law schools as businesses that focus on misguided metrics is dangerous. During Van Zandt’s final years at Northwestern, its U.S. News ranking dropped from ninth to twelfth and its NLJ 250 placement rate for graduates joining big firms dropped from first to eighth.

Call it karma.

PRACTICAL SKILLS

A few days after the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the loss of another 2,600 legal jobs in June, the Wall Street Journal ran “Law Schools Get Practical.” Some schools are changing curriculum to develop skills that real lawyers need; that makes sense. But some hope that more big law positions for graduates will result; that is magical thinking.

Reconsidering legal education is important. The first year teaches students to think like lawyers; the second year covers important substantive areas. To deal with the universally maligned third year, Stanford is considering a clinical course requirement involving 40-hour plus weeks of actual case work, while Washington and Lee University of Law School replaced lectures and seminars with “case-based simulations run by practicing lawyers.”

Meanwhile, Harvard has updated its curriculum significantly in recent years. Indiana University Maurer School of Law teaches “project management” and “emotional intelligence.” NYU offers courses in “negotiation” and “client counseling.” Some innovations are more valuable than others, but no one should think that improved job prospects will result.

The article quoted a recruiter at McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP who said that clients weren’t willing to pay for new lawyer training. Likewise, Xerox’s general counsel described his company’s policy of not paying for first-year associates. The implication is that if new graduates received more practical training in school, clients would pay for them and hiring would increase. Not a chance.

First, new associates in large firms don’t need the practical skills that most law schools are promoting. If there were courses on “maximizing billable hours,” “withstanding unreasonable partner demands,” or “surviving a culture of attrition where fewer than ten percent of new associates will become equity partners,” that would be one thing. But document review, due diligence undertakings, and other mundane tasks that consume most big law associates’ early years don’t require much special training. Some don’t even require a law degree. Xerox — and many other companies sharing its dim view of first-year associate value — won’t start paying for young attorneys just because they have taken the new courses.

Second, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 have moved steadily upward over the last decade — to over $1.3 million in 2010. If those firms are already “suffering” from client resistance to paying for new associates, partners nevertheless seem to be thriving financially.

Finally, when asked whether current law school innovations will help students land jobs, Timothy Lloyd, chair of Hogan Lovells recruiting committee, told the Journal:

“It could enhance the reputation of the law school…as places that will produce lawyers who have practical skills. As to the particular student when I’m interviewing them? It doesn’t make much of a difference.”

Bingo. As a big law interviewer myself, I looked for intelligence, personality, and potential. Specific courses didn’t matter. Assessing candidates was and is subjective but, to adapt Justice Stewart’s pornography test, I usually knew a good one when I saw one.

Schools should expand clinical programs, but not because such student credentials matter to large firm recruiters. They don’t. However, those who don’t get big law jobs really need practical lawyering skills. Do it for them — the vast majority of today’s 50,000 annual graduates.

Schools should modernize curriculum, but not to become business school knockoffs for big law. That’s a mistake.

Even more urgently, schools should educate prospective attorneys more fully about the big law path — from the challenge of getting a job to the unforgiving billable hours culture to the elusive brass ring of equity partnership. (See, e.g., The Partnership)

That would be real reform, but at most place it won’t happen. Yale’s cautionary memo about the real meaning of 2,000 billable hours a year and Stanford’s “Alternatives to Big Law” series that compliments its outstanding student loan forgiveness program are hopeful beginnings. But such candor runs counter to the enticing big firm starting salaries that pervade law school websites aimed at the next generation of would-be lawyers. After all, their student loans pay the bills.

A NEW LAW SCHOOL MISSION

What ails the profession and is there a cure?

If you haven’t already seen it, you might want to take a look at Part I of my article, “Great Expectations Meet Painful Realities,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Circuit Rider. My latest contribution to the debate on the profession’s growing crisis begins on page 24 of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association’s semi-annual publication.

Part II begins at page 26 of the December 2011 issue.

THE U OF C’s BIG LEAP FORWARD

My thanks to the standing room-only crowd that turned out to hear about my new legal thriller, The Partnership, at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. That delightful town is, of course, the home of a great university that includes a law school worthy of Thomas Jefferson’s pride.

While I was there, it occurred to me that when law schools get it wrong, they deserve the scorn that comes with a public spotlight. When they get it right, they should bask in its warm glow. The University of Chicago Law School recently got it right. Really right.

It’s ironic.  The home of the Chicago School — where free market self-interest reigns and the economic analysis of the law has been an article of faith for a long time — has adopted a loan repayment program that sends students this powerful message:

There’s more to life after law school than pursuing big law’s elusive financial brass rings. If you take the large firm path, do so because it’s what you want, not because you have no other financial options.

This must shock deans who have pandered to the large law firm constituencies that hire some graduates for the best-paying starting associate jobs. Former Northwestern Dean David Van Zandt made himself the most visible and ardent proponent of that approach. The U of C’s new program doesn’t ignore big law as a potential employer of its graduates. In fact, it led all other schools in the NLJ 250‘s most recent list of big firms’ “go-to schools.” But it now tells the country’s top students that even if they don’t want big law, the U of C still still wants them — so much that it will pay their way.

It’s unique. For example, Harvard has a respectable Low-Income Protection Program. In 2008, it went a step farther and announced a plan forgiving third-year tuition in return for five years of post-graduate public service, but overwhelming student demand made it a casualty of the financial crisis. In its place, Harvard now provides limited funds to encourage public interest work on a case-by-case basis. Other schools, including Northwestern, have loan forgiveness programs, too, but none appears to be as good as the University of Chicago’s new one.

A single line from its website description says it all:

“This means that a graduate who engages in qualifying work for 10 years, earns less than the salary cap, and maintains enrollment in the federal Income-Based Repayment Program, will receive a FREE University of Chicago Law School education!”

“Qualifying work” is public interest broadly defined as “the full-time practice of law, or in a position normally requiring a law degree, in a non-profit organization or government office, other than legal academia.” It includes judicial clerkships.

The “salary cap” is $80,000 and doesn’t include spousal income. That combination seems to beat Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. (Caveat: The differences across school programs can be significant and prospective students should consider their own circumstances, run the numbers, and determine which one produces the best individual result.)

The program is a reasoned response to practical realities. First, big law cannot accommodate all top law school graduates, even if deans try to put them there and all want to go.

Second, the burden of law school debt shapes career decisions that lead too many lawyers to dissatisfying careers and unhappy lives, especially in large firms.

Third, the upcoming generation of prospective attorneys wants options other than large firms. To be sure, many lawyers find that such places are a good fit for their personalities and ambitions. But in recent years, such individuals have become a shrinking minority of the people heading in that direction. The profession should encourage attorneys who will become unhappy in such institutions to avoid them in the first place. Imagine a big law world populated exclusively with lawyers who wanted to be there.

Finally, the program is a reminder that the law is a great calling. Law schools aren’t big law assembly lines, grinding out graduates for firms where nobility too often yields to a business school mentality that prizes misguided metrics — billings, billable hours, leverage ratios, and average partner profits — above all else. The best law schools are uniquely positioned to level a playing field that now tilts students toward large firms.

Whatever else they accomplish, the U of C’s actions bring important attention to student alternatives that sometimes get lost in the myopic focus on big law. Now that’s leadership.

LAW SCHOOL DECEPTION — PART II

The National Law Journal just published its annual list of “go-to” schools — those that supply the most new associates to large law firms. Clearly, lower tier students aren’t alone in struggling to find jobs. One top school’s ride on the NLJ 250 rankings roller coaster is particularly interesting and instructive.

Northwestern jumped from eleventh to second place on the list in 2007. Then-Dean David Van Zandt credited the “tremendous effort to reach out to employers,” along with the emphasis on enrolling students with significant postgraduate work experience, as attracting big firm recruiters. Last year, Northwestern took the number one spot.

But in 2010, the school dropped to eighth — a relative decline that overall market trends don’t explain, but growing class size does. Northwestern awarded 234 JDs in 2007; the 2010 class had 50 more — 284. One reason: misguided short-term metrics became guiding principles.

Two years ago, the ABA Journal reported that Northwestern had become one of the most aggressive recruiters of transfer students (adding 43 to the first-year class). Such students were a win-win for short-term metrics-lovers: Their undisclosed LSATs didn’t count in the U.S. News rankings and their added tuition boosted the financial bottom line.

Meanwhile, Northwestern’s “go-to” position could continue dropping next year because the class of 2011 will include another new contingent — the first group of accelerated JDs. That program emerged from focus groups of large law firm leaders — part of the dean’s outreach program — who helped to shape Northwestern’s long-range strategic document, Plan 2008, Building Great Leaders for the Changing World.

That leads to another point: leadership. Defining a law school’s proper mission is critically important. There’s nothing wrong with getting input from all relevant constituencies, including large law firms. But retooling curriculum to fulfill big law’s stated desires for associate skills is a dubious undertaking.

In February 2010, Van Zandt explained his contrary rationale during a PLI presentation to large firm leaders. Simply put, he saw starting salaries as setting the upper limit that a school can charge for tuition. Accordingly, attending law school makes economic sense only if it leads to a job that offers a reasonable return on the degree’s required financial investment. However valid that perspective may be, the slipperiness of the resulting slope became apparent when Northwestern’s laudable goal — updating curriculum — focused on satisfying big firms that paid new graduates the most.

Tellingly, in the ABA’s Litigation quarterly, Van Zandt explained that high hourly rates made clients “unwilling to pay for the time a young lawyer spends learning on the job…As a result, the traditional training method of associate-partner mentoring gets sacrificed.” Law schools, he urged, should pick up that slack.

But the traditional training method gets sacrificed only because the firms’ prevailing business model doesn’t reward such uses of otherwise billable time. Rather than challenge leaders to reconsider their own organizations that produce staggering associate attrition rates and many dissatisfied attorneys, the dean embraced their short-term focus — maximizing current year profits per partner.

Relatively, Northwestern still fares well in the “go-to” rankings, but the data depict a dynamic exercise in magical thinking. Among the top 20 schools, it led the way in increasing class size as the school’s absolute big law placement numbers steadily declined: 172 in 2007; 154 in 2008; 142 in 2009; 126 in 2010.

Most law schools feel the continuing crunch. Overall, the top 50 law schools graduated 14,000 new lawyers in 2010; only 27% went to NLJ 250 firms — a drop of three percentage points (400 lawyers) from 2009. But that only highlights an obvious question: Why should that shrinking tail wag any dog? A diversified portfolio of career outcomes less dependent on large firms is a more prudent plan for schools and their students.

Even if jobs reappear, there’s another reason to combine balance with candor: Recent surveys indicate that a majority of large firm attorneys become dissatisfied with their careers anyway. Those metrics never appear on law school websites. Deans are uniquely positioned to help prospective students make informed decisions. They could serve the profession by focusing less on marketing and more on giving prospective students the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If only there were a metric for it.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE MONTH

Pity the United Kingdom, which I just visited. It has only “Work-Life Balance Week” — the last seven days of September. How many Americans realize that October was our “Work-Life Balance Month“? Such commemorations suggest an obvious question: What should we celebrate the rest of the year? Work-Life Imbalance?

The concept of work-life balance is laudable, even if the phrase itself can be somewhat off target. For those who are chronically unhappy with their jobs, “balancing” unpleasant “work” with the rest of “life” is at best palliative, not curative. Dissatisfaction with a career usually infects everything else. Notwithstanding daunting economic realities, a better long-term plan for such sufferers is to find another way to make a living.

On the other hand, my friend, Northwestern Professor Steven Lubet, correctly notes that no job is perfect: “That’s why they call it work.” But attorneys who generally enjoy their tasks still benefit from time spent on people and things other than clients and their problems. Enjoying life outside the office makes most of us better in every way and improves worker productivity. Unfortunately, that’s an increasingly tough sell in most of  the Biglaw world where the MBA-mentality of misguided metrics — billable hours, billings, and short-term equity partner profits — force all oars in the water to row in the same myopic direction.

Being a lawyer has always been demanding, but when even satisfied attorneys feel pressure to work unreasonably long hours, bad things happen to them, their families, clients, firms, and the profession. Slackers can take no comfort in my views. An honest 2,000 billed hours — the annual minimum that most big firms report to NALP — requires 10-hour days and occasional weekends. (http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/CDO_Public/cdo-billable_hour.pdf) That’s more than firms required 25 years ago, but it’s still not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, too many large firms made the 2,000 minimum culturally irrelevant long ago. No debt-ridden associate concerned about keeping a job wants to bring up the rear of a year-end billable hours list. Nor does the pressure end with advancement. Equity partners must continually justify their economic existences — year-after-year.

During my 30 years at a large firm, my billed hours usually ranged from 2,000 to 2,200 yearly. Once or twice, they reached 2,500 and every incremental hour above 2,200 took a increasingly severe toll. Beyond losing any semblance of a personal life, how well does anyone function during the 14th hour of a workday compared to hour 8? A fatigued mind is fuzzy, irrational, less efficient, and prone to error. Most clients paying for an attorney’s 3,000th billed hour in a year are getting very little for their money. Yet some lawyers do that year after year — and some clients encourage such behavior.

The Department of Transportation reviewed scientific studies on the effects of exhaustion on the human mind and body before limiting over-the-road truckers to 70 hours in an 8-day period, after which they must rest for 34 consecutive hours. (http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/topics/hos/) Ask any Biglaw lawyer the last time he or she worked at that clip (or worse) and then went 34 straight hours without looking at a BlackBerry or talking with clients and colleagues on a cellphone.

Who presents the greater societal danger — a tired, overworked driver exceeding the 8-day maximum of 70 hours, or an attorney maintaining a more strenuous pace? Big-hours legal billers might argue that trucker fatigue is different. When a sleep deprived driver causes a catastrophe, innocent bystanders are at risk. If lawyer exhaustion produces suboptimal or even negative results, the client (or the attorney’s malpractice carrier) pays the price; usually it’s financial. That’s reassuring.

No one wants an attorney who has nothing to do. Likewise, every good lawyer sometimes confronts genuine emergencies that require burning the midnight oil. But a firm’s perennial billable hours winners present potential problems that, for some reason, don’t concern most clients. I’ve never understood why.

MIRED IN METRICS? HAVE SOME MORE!

Once a bad situation spins out of control, is there any way to corral it? When all else fails, try making things worse.

The ABA recently released its report detailing just a few of the ways that U.S. News law school rankings have been counterproductive for prospective lawyers and the profession — from driving up the costs of legal education to driving down the importance of diversity.  (http://www.abanet.org/legaled/nosearch/Council2010/OpenSession2010/F.USNewsFinal%20Report.pdf)

As U.S.News now develops law firm rankings, the report concludes with an ominous warning:

“Once a single rankings system comes to dominate a particular field, it is very difficuly to displace, difficult to change and dangerous to underestimate the importance of its methodology to any school or firm that operates in the field. This, we believe, is the most important lesson from the law school experience for those law firms who may be ranked by U.S. News in the future.”

In other words, rankings sometimes function as any so-called definitive metric: They displace reasoned judgment. Independent thought becomes unnecessary because the methodology behind the metric dictates decision-makers’ actions.

Since 1985, many big firms have become living examples of the phenomenon. That year, The American Lawyer published its first-ever Am Law 50 list of the nation’s largest firms. Most firm leaders now teach to the Am Law test, annually seeking to maximize revenues and average profits per equity partner. The resulting culture of billings, billable hours, and associate/partner leverage ratios begins to explain why surveys report that large firm lawyers lead the profession in career dissatisfaction.(http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/pulse_of_the_legal_profession/print/) Without a metric for it, attorney well-being — and the factors contributing to it — drop out of the equation.

Courtesy of U.S. News, large firms now stand on the threshhold of more metrics. Will they make working environments of firms that have succcumbed to the profits-per-partner criterion worse?

It depends, but more of yet another bad thing — rankings — could produce something good — forcing individuals to sift through contradictory data, think for themselves, and make a real decision. But that can happen only if U.S. News produces a list of “best law firms” that bears little resemblance to the rank ordering of the Am Law 100 in average equity partner profits. Such contradictory data would confuse newly minted attorneys and force them to develop their own criteria for decision.

The American Lawyer itself provides a useful example of the possibilities. Eight years ago, it began publishing the Am Law “A-List,” which has gained limited traction as a moderating influence on the Am Law average profits-per-equity-partner metric that otherwise dominates decision-making at most big firms. The A-List’s additional considerations bear on the quality of a young lawyer’s life — associate satisfaction, diversity, and pro bono activities. The myopic focus on short-term dollars still dominates decisions in most big firms, but the A-List has joined the conversation.

What methodology will U.S. News employ in evaluating law firms? If it follows the approach of its law school ranking counterparts, many firms will game the system, just as some law schools have. (See my earlier article, “THE U.S. NEWS RANKINGS ARE OUT!” (https://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-us-news-rankings-are-out/)) But misguided and manipulatable metrics aren’t inevitable.

Talent is essential for any successful firm, large or small. Other qualities — collegiality, mentoring, community, high morale accompanying a shared sense of professional purpose — make a workplace special. Can the U.S. News find ways to measure those qualities?

That’s the challenge. But I fear that students won’t bother focusing on the U.S. News methodology or its flaws. More likely, whatever rankings emerge from the process will provide — as they have for so many deliberating the choice of a law school — an easy final answer.

Ceding such control over life’s direction to others is rarely a good idea. There is no substitute for personal  involvement in deciding the things that matter most. That means asking recruiters tough questions, scrutinizing the lives of a firm’s senior associates and partners, and finding role models who are living a life that a new attorney envisions for her- or himself.

In the end, the current large firm business model and its self-imposed associate/partner leverage ratios will continue to render success — defined as promotion to equity partnership — an elusive dream for most who seek it. For those who become dissatisfied with their jobs, time passes slowly. So everyone joining a big firm — even a person intending to remain only for the years required to repay student loans — has ample incentive to get that first big decision after law school correct.

So why would intelligent young attorneys let U.S. News’ self-proclaimed experts make it with something as silly as a ranking? Probably for the same reasons that they relied on U.S. News to make their law school decisions for them three years earlier.

Someday, maybe there will be a U.S. News formula for choosing a spouse. Then won’t life be simple?

WEIRD TILTS AT THE RANKINGS WINDMILL

[UPDATE: On January 1, 2011, Northwestern’s former dean, David Van Zandt, became president of The New School in New York.]

Virtually all law school deans — with the notable exception of Northwestern’s David Van Zandt — have urged prospective law students to ignore U.S. News rankings because they’re methodologically flawed, susceptible to manipulation, and counterproductive to sound student decision-making. None of that seems to bother students, most of whom regard them as authoritative.

I introduced Van Zandt’s outlier position in an earlier post. (https://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-us-news-rankings-are-out/). More can be said about how his business school mentality hurts the school and its students, but not today. Right now, I’m more interested in two recent articles on U.S. News rankings.

First, Mercer University recently named its new dean. That’s not a particularly newsworthy item, especially for an undistinguished school. But the National Law Journal thought otherwise. Presumably, its May 27 headline explained why:

“‘U.S. News’ antagonist lands deanship at Mercer University.” http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202458884379&US_News_antagonist_lands_deanship_at_Mercer_University&hbxlogin=1

So that’s what made Gary Simson’s new job noteworthy? He was a U.S. News antagonist? But that describes every law school dean in the country — except Van Zandt.

Simson had been dean of the Case Western Reserve Law School for  18 months when, in summer 2008, he urged law schools to boycott the U.S. News rankings because deans pandered to them. (http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202423187148)

Dean Van Zandt quickly proved the point. A few months after Simson’s call to arms, the ABA Journal exposed Northwestern’s aggressive recruitment of prospective second-year students whom that school had rejected a year earlier. (http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/transfers_bolster_elite_schools/)  As transfers, their LSATs wouldn’t count in the U.S. News rankings, but their tuition dollars would go directly to the school’s bottom line.

Nobody asked students in the original 238-person class what they thought of that win-win solution for the business school mentality of misguided metrics. Their class grew by almost 20% in 2006-2007. Ironically, Northwestern’s U.S. News ranking has fallen for each of the last three years — from 9th to 11th.

Unfortunately, Dean Simson was already a wounded warrior when he took up the rankings crusade. He’d generated criticism from faculty, alumni, and donors for a variety of reasons, including Case’s low state bar passage rates (75% for Case first-time takers in February 2008 compared to 95% for Cleveland State’s). In October 2008 — just before another round of bar passage results was released — the university’s president announced that Simson  “had agreed to resign.”  (http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2008/10/case_western_reserve_law_schoo.html) So much for the boycott messenger and his message.

Yet now, two years later, Simson’s antagonism toward U.S. News rankings has become his claim to fame. Could skepticism about the rankings be attracting new followers and redeeming old ones?

That leads to the second article, also in the NLJ.  The Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) has urged law schools to stop providing U.S. News with incoming students’ LSAT scores. SALT asserts that the pressure on admissions deans to get students with top scores compromises efforts to achieve campus diversity. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202458731270)

It’s a noble gesture, but little more. Starving U.S. News of LSAT scores means only that the magazine will have to get such information from the ABA and the Law School Admission Council, both of which report LSATs at individual schools.

Still, recent noise about the dangers of using flawed rankings criteria as decisive metrics is encouraging. The volume should increase in October when U.S. News releases its newest compilation: rankings of the best law firms.

On that one, U.S.  News may have awakened a slumbering giant. In February, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a resolution to investigate the proposed law firm rankings and, while they’re at it, take a close look at law school ranking methods, too.

Perhaps someday wise leaders of our profession will grasp the destructive impact of the rankings game — from law schools to big firms (based on their average-equity-profits-per-partner metric) — and it will all end. But I doubt it.

After all, metrics make life’s decisions so much easier, don’t they? Indeed, they eliminate the need to think at all!

THE US NEWS RANKINGS ARE OUT!

[UPDATE: This post first appeared on April 16, 2010. On January 1, 2011, Northwestern’s former dean, David Van Zandt, became president of The New School in New York.]

Earlier this week, I spoke with one of my former Northwestern undergraduate students. Headed for a top law school this fall, he surprised me with this remark:

“A lot of my classmates are waiting to send in their law school deposits until the latest US News rankings come out this week.”

Seriously?

Virtually every law school dean has condemned US News’ annual effort to do for law schools what the Am Law 100 has been doing for big firms. Those of you reading my “PUZZLE PIECES” installments know that annual profits-per-partner rankings haven’t brought out the best in us. It’s all part of a larger contemporary phenomenon: the MBA mentality of misguided metrics.

Unfortunately, students aren’t listening to the unanimous chorus of skeptical law school deans. It’s easier to follow the simplistic approach of a lonely outlier, Northwestern’s David Van Zandt: however wrongheaded, metrics matter.

For a decade, he has refused to join colleagues criticizing US News’ fatally flawed methodology. (See, e.g., Brian Leiter’s analysis) A self-styled maverick, Van Zandt insists that ratings are relevant consumer information.

His position proves too much. Not all misinformation should be allowed to pollute decision-makers’ minds. That’s why fraud and misrepresentation causes of action exist. There’s another problem: pandering to the US News criteria distorts law school administrators’ decisions. Once misguided metrics become governing principles, thoughtful reflection disappears. Teaching to the test is easier than creating imaginative lesson plans.

Lately, metrics seem to be foresaking the maverick. In 2009, Northwestern dropped from 9 to 10 in the US News overall standings; this year, it fell to 11.

Rationalizing the decline, Van Zandt says that his innovative programs haven’t gained traction because of “resistance within a conservative profession.” He argues from aneccdotal evidence that the future will vindicate him. Apart from his inconsistency in crediting a positive rating that suits his purposes but discounting it when things breaks badly, some might accuse him of magical thinking.

Is it time for Van Zandt to back away from his isolated defense of the US News listings? Sure, but it won’t happen. In an April 13 Above the Law post, he urges even more rankings, however dubious their value.

In the end, he’s a misguided metrics kind of guy — at least until Northwestern drops again next year. [UPDATE: It did — to 12th, but by the time the news hit, Van Zandt had already left to become president of The New School in New York.]