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.

ELON’S “GROUNDBREAKING NEW MODEL”

On October 9, the Elon University School of Law issued a press release announcing its “groundbreaking new model” of legal education. That’s an overstatement, but the plan has some distinctly positive elements. Unfortunately, it also continues to rely on the prevailing law school business model that has produced the profession’s current crisis.

Elon’s Brief History

Located in Greensboro, North Carolina, Elon was founded in 2006 and received ABA accreditation in 2008 — as the Great Recession began. In one sense, the timing was good because many undergraduates thought law school was a safe place to spend three years waiting for the economy to improve. At the time, that option looked especially attractive because the ABA didn’t require schools to disclose whether recent graduates were obtaining meaningful JD-required jobs. By 2010, Elon achieved a record-high first-year enrollment of 132 students. Tuition for 2009-2010 was $30,750/year.

As ABA-mandated disclosures began to reveal that almost half of all law graduates nationwide were not getting full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD, the overall number of applicants to all law schools plummeted — from 87,500 in 2010 to 59,400 in 2013. Some deans at less competitive schools lowered admissions standards and raised acceptance rates. Even in a collapsing market for new lawyers, the effort to fill classrooms was a rational response to financial incentives. Federally-backed non-dischargeable student loans for tuition generated revenues for law schools, but schools had no accountability for their graduates’ poor job prospects.

Lowering the Bar

According to U.S. News, Elon accepted 68.4 percent of applicants for fall 2013 and enrolled 107 first-year students — almost 20 percent fewer than in 2010. From 2010 to 2013, the median LSAT for its first-year class dropped from 155 to 150; the median GPA declined from 3.12 to 3.01. At the 25th percentile, from 2010 to 2013, Elon’s LSAT/GPA combination went from 153/2.80 to 146/2.75.

Even as first-year enrollment declined at Elon, tuition increased to almost $38,000/year. Average student debt for 2013 graduates exceeded $108,000. Meanwhile, Elon’s full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for 2013 graduates was 32.8 percent. The school was one of only 13 (out of 201) ABA-accredited schools that placed less than one-third of their graduates in such jobs.

Groundbreaking?

When the school’s new dean, Luke Bierman, joined Elon on June 1 of this year, the school was already more than two years into developing a strategic plan that now includes added experiential learning, residencies with practicing attorneys, faculty-supervised development, and a JD program of seven trimesters replacing three academic years.

Practical training, residencies, and student development efforts that give otherwise unemployed lawyers a few tools to help them scratch out a living with their JDs is a good thing. Everyone should applaud those initiatives. But especially with Duke, UNC, and Wake Forest nearby, such changes are not likely to create more JD-required jobs for Elon graduates.

Pushing students out the door more quickly is not particularly novel. Many schools, including the University of Dayton, Drexel, Pepperdine, Northwestern, Southwestern, and others, have two-year programs. But the really big reform — eliminating the third year altogether — isn’t happening because accreditation rules prevent it. Existing accelerated programs merely cram the requisite workload into a shorter time period.

Money-saving?

Elon claims that its new plan offers two economic benefits to students: they can enter the job market sooner and save money on tuition. Whether becoming eligible for JD-required employment is a benefit for Elon graduates in the current environment (or even a few years from now) isn’t clear. As for the tuition discount, it’s true that an Elon JD will now cost $100,000 for seven trimesters compared to the $114,000 for three years (at $38,000/year) — a nominal student savings of $14,000.

But Elon’s strategic plan probably includes a pro forma projection showing that its new pricing policy benefits the school at least as much. Take the total current cost of $114,000, divide it by nine trimesters (three years), and the result is a per-trimester cost of $12,666.67. If students were paying for seven trimesters at Elon’s current annual tuition rate, the total cost for the degree would be $88,666.67. They’ll now pay $100,000 (or $14,285.71 per trimester). Elon promises to freeze a student’s total cost for the program, but on a price-per-trimester basis the $100,000 fixed cost already includes a tuition increase.

The Real Problem

The short-term economic impact of Elon’s new program is less troubling than the school’s long-term business plan. Because the seven-trimester program will generate less gross revenue per student than its current three-year course of study, the school plans to recover those losses by adding — you guessed it — more students.

The Triad Business Journal reports: “From a business standpoint, Elon Law anticipates offsetting the loss of revenue from tuition reduction by gradually increasing the number of students joining the school each year, up from 112 this fall to about 130 within a number of years.”

Imagine the consequences if every law school that currently places fewer than one-third of its graduates in full-time long-term JD-required jobs were to increase enrollment by 20 to 30 percent “within a number of years.” For the profession, that would be like accelerating in reverse gear toward a brick wall.

The Quest for Meaningful Reform

Elon’s understandable approach to the economics of this situation is important for one more reason. After accepting the deanship in January 2014, Bierman became a member of the ABA’s Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education. If that task force develops a “groundbreaking” plan to supplement a glutted market with more new lawyers from schools where two-thirds of current graduates can’t find full-time long-term JD-required employment, perhaps the ground would be better left unbroken.

More about possible solutions in my address at the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Symposium at St. John’s University on October 24.