THE CRISIS IN LEGAL EDUCATION IS OVER!

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

Wishful thinking is never a sound strategy for success.

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

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

The Trend! The Trend!

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

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

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

A More Troubling Trend

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

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

Student Enlightenment Interrupted

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

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

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

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

The emphasis is mine.

The Biggest Problems Remain

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

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

You Be The Judge

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

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

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

“GAMING THE REPORTING”?

In a recent interview with Lee Pacchia of Bloomberg News, U.S. News & World Report’s director of data research Robert Morse explained this year’s only revision to his law school rankings methodology. Morse gave different weights to various employment outcomes for class of 2011 graduates. But he didn’t disclose precisely what those different weights were.

Morse said that such transparency worried him. Full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree got 100 percent credit. But he didn’t reveal the weight he gave other employment categories (part-time, short-term, non-J.D.-required) because he didn’t want deans “gaming the reporting of their results.” It was an interesting choice of words.

Teapot tempests

In some ways, all of the attention to the changes in this year’s rankings methodology is remarkable. Certainly, a school’s employment success for graduates is important. But the nine-month data point for which the ABA now requires more detailed information accounts for only 14 percent of a school’s total U.S. News ranking score. To put that in context, consider some of the more consequential rankings criteria.

Fifteen percent of every school’s U.S. News score is based on a non-scientific survey of practicing lawyers and judges. The survey response rate this year was only nine percent.

Likewise, the “peer assessment” survey that goes to four faculty members at every accredited law school — dean, dean of academic affairs, chair of faculty appointments, and most recently tenured faculty member — accounts for 25 percent of a school’s ranking score. It asks those four individuals to rate all ABA-accredited law schools from 1-to-5, without requiring that any respondent know anything about the schools he or she assesses.

Taken together, the two so-called “quality assessment” surveys comprising 40 percent of every school’s ranking are a self-reinforcing contest for brand recognition. As measures of substantive educational value, well, you decide.

Game of moans

But if, as Morse suggests, his concern is “gaming the reporting,” he must be worried that some deans would either: 1) self-report inaccurate data; or 2) otherwise change their behavior in an effort to raise their school’s ranking. He’s a bit late to both parties.

Scandals engulfed prominent law schools that submitted false LSAT and GPA statistics for their entering classes. But how many others haven’t been caught cheating? No one knows. As for permissible behavior that accomplishes similar objectives, examples abound.

For years, deans seeking to enhance the 12.5 percent of the rankings component relating to median LSAT scores for J.D. entrants have been “buying” higher LSATs through “merit” scholarships. Need-based financial aid has suffered. Ironically, those merit scholarships often disappear after the first year of law school.

Likewise, the faculty resources component is 15 percent of every school’s ranking. But it encourages expenditures — and skyrocketing tuition — without regard to whether they benefit a student’s educational experience.

Whom to blame

Morse establishes the criteria and methodology that incentivize behavior producing these and many other perverse outcomes. But he doesn’t think that any of the current problems confronting the profession are his fault.

“U.S. News isn’t the ABA,” he told Pacchia. “U.S. News doesn’t regulate the reporting requirements…[W]e’re not responsible for the cost of law school, the state of legal employment, the impact that recession has had on hiring, or the fact that 10 or 20 new law schools have opened over the last couple decades. We’re not responsible for the imbalance of jobs to graduates. No, I think we’re not responsible. I think we’ve helped prospective students understand what they are getting into than they were previously.”

Of course, the problem isn’t just the flawed rankings methodology itself. Also culpable are the decision-makers who regard a single overall ranking as meaningful — students, deans, university administrators, and trustees. Without their blind deference to a superficially appealing metric, the U.S. News rankings would disappear — just as the U.S. News & World Report print news magazine did years ago.

Cultural obsession

Pervasive throughout society, rankings may be a permanent feature of the legal profession. But it’s worth remembering that they’re relatively new. Before the first U.S. News list of only the top 20 law schools in 1987, prospective students and law schools somehow found each other.

Today, rankings facilitate laziness. The illusory comfort of an unambiguous numerical solution is easier than engaging in critical thought and exercising independent judgment. Forgotten along the way is the computer science maxim “garbage in, garbage out.”