Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sin City

On the thirty-first floor
A gold-plated door
Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain

Last night's developments in the PSU scandal serve as a reminder that a sudden wave of cleansing wrath can wash away years of corruption in even the highest and most powerful places.  I'm not, of course, drawing a direct comparison between the law school crisis and the PSU's administration's (alleged) long-running coverup of Jerry Sandusky's (alleged) career as a serial child rapist.  The PSU scandal features a single, unspeakably monstrous villain, and a handful of enablers, whose despicable indifference to his depredations led to the swift firing of a university president, athletic director, and iconic football coach, as soon as public opinion grasped the enormity of the crimes that had apparently been committed and hidden.

It should go without saying that children who are raped by an old man suffer an injury which is different, not merely in degree but in kind, from law school graduates whose economic and social futures are damaged severely by the combined effects of systematic misrepresentation, and the enabling and encouraging of the financial recklessness from which law students have suffered and law schools profited.

Another big difference is that the law school scam lacks a conveniently small cast of characters and an unambiguously malignant motive: it's not as if a half-dozen people got together and decided to quadruple the cost of going to law school at the same time that the value of a law degree was undergoing a serious decline, while consciously constructing a nefarious scheme to obscure these two facts from prospective law students. Instead, you have rampant structural -- as opposed to primarily individual -- corruption, which makes it far easier for individuals to disclaim any responsibility to act, and indeed to fail to notice the existence of that corruption in the first place.

Such differences make it harder to envision just how one would go about unleashing a wave of purifying social outrage against the life-wrecking aspects of the contemporary legal academic system. And indeed reforming this system will almost certainly not feature some crystallizing, triggering event. Instead what we are seeing is a slow but steady consciousness-raising, as both cyberspace and the mainstream media become aware of the extent to which the current system of legal education in America is, every year, doing immense damage to the lives of yet another new group  of tens of thousands of mostly young people, by saddling them with enormous amounts of non-dischargeable taxpayer-backed debt, which finances a grossly inefficient pseudo-educational process, while continuing to mislead them seriously about their poor to non-existent legal job prospects.

In the next few days, a couple more major stories are going to be published in very high profile media venues, regarding various aspects of this crisis. These stories seem likely to get a good deal of attention both within, and more important outside, the law school world. (A little bird tells me that a couple of U.S. senators are now contemplating holding public hearings on the question of how the ABA has conducted itself regarding these matters). And they will no doubt elicit the usual defensive responses from the usual suspects.  Each such moment of public attention, however, creates more opportunities for both moral clarity and real action, inside of institutions where a status quo of deep denial and reflexive repression is no longer nearly as secure as it was even a year ago.

Speaking up is difficult, and only a child or a fool believes that virtue is generally rewarded. Doing the right thing isn't easy.  That doesn't make doing it any less imperative.


  1. Kudos to using a string analogy and ignoring the cries of extremism. That whole scandal was a prime example of a large institution protecting its perceived self-interest at the cost of a ten year old being raped in a school shower. It doesn't get much more stark than that. The Leiters of the world should be proud about being on the Paterno side of the equation.

    Glad the ABA is being put to task but I'll hold my breath until something is actually done. Have a bad feeling I'll be holding it for a long time.

  2. The anger is justified, for people to label those who are angry at having borrowed vast sums to receive nothing in return "extremists" is simply offensive.

  3. You mention taxpayer-backing of school debt here, so I'll riff on that.

    I've seen many people claiming that this is a root cause of the crisis. I have no doubt that the subsidies given to educational borrowing have contributed to the run-up in costs, but the real government fail here is not this transfer of wealth from the people to the banks (while leeching away at the conduit, the student borrowers). It is entirely appropriate for the government to make higher education available to everyone.

    Where the government has erred is in allowing the state school systems to abandon their educational mandate -- by insisting that they be essentially self-supporting for-profit enterprises, paying for themselves as a business with no shareholders rather than being a social good subsidized with tax dollars. Competition from high-quality, low-cost state-funded school systems is the essential weight which tethers the costs of private education.

    It's shrinking budgets for state schools and the insistence on "running government like a business" that has enabled this price spiral, more than anything else, because in this world no higher educational institution -- law school, undergraduate, graduate, or other professional school -- can compete on price.

    We have shifted the burden off of the entire population, through taxpayer funding of public education, and onto a small minority. This is neither moral nor responsible nor wise.


    These people get nice fat raises for inflating figures. This is just WRONG. The school looked the other way until it COULD NO LONGER. Like the subject of today's post, the birds are starting to circle overhead on these con artists.

  5. 7:52, the Enron like "short term / bottom line / manipulate numbers" attitude pervades business. It's not hard to imagine why law schools started doing it too. It's wrong, for sure, but it's also the zeitgeist.

  6. I think Tiercelet raises a good point about the relationship between state schools and private schools.

    NYLS gets about $2.2 million a year in government grants. That's a small number compared to $78.6 million of tuition dollars it brings in, but why give private law schools grants at all? If there is something worth funding, fund it through the public universities.

    Imagine if that money was instead given to a state school in NY, such as SUNY. SUNY has a student body of about 525 (175 per class). That $2.2 million could fund a tuition decrease of $4,190 per student per year. In-state tuition would drop from $16,010 to $11,820, more than a 25% decrease. A super cheap state option like that would in turn force other private schools to lower their prices to stay competitive.

  7. "It's shrinking budgets for state schools and the insistence on "running government like a business" that has enabled this price spiral"

    Oh bullshit. Thats not the main problem. The main problem is that these people saw free money and didn't give a crap who suffered as a consequence. I agree with your solution but the greed would have been there regardless of direct state subsidies. They would have just raised tuition that much higher.

  8. It is the problem Michael Lewis described in relation to the financial crisis:

    The school administrators were alone in a dark room with a big pile of money (student loan dollars). They could have left it on the table and saved their students. They did no such thing.

  9. Terry is exactly right. These people have no conscience and would suck every last person dry if they could. Which is why shouts of extremism are so laughable? Who exactly is the extremist in this relationship?

  10. Third Man, in my view law school administrators and faculty fall into three categories when it comes to the destructive effects of debt on their students: the delusional, the guilt-ridden, and the sociopaths. The delusional simply don't realize what havoc their decisions are wreaking. The guilt-ridden do but aren't numerous or strong enough to effect change yet. The sociopaths just don't care. I would guess that the vast majority of law faculty are still in the first category even now. I have a less charitable view of administrators.

  11. @7:52
    My question is how could the Illinois dean NOT have known what was going on in the above-mentioned article? Surely one of the KEY goals of law school dean would be to intimately involve him/herself in those numbers that were seemingly...whimsically....left to one, lone individual. What were both of the respective deans during those years doing all that time? Just collecting a paycheck and letting their lone minion do the dirty work for them without even exercising some due diligence in reviewing his work??? How can so many seemingly interested parties be divorced from this lone man's exaggeration of numbers for a 7-year period?

    Two words: WILLFUL IGNORANCE....and, thereby, NEGLIGENCE.

    All in all: RIDICULOUS.

  12. Why would one of the key goals of the dean be to have an intimate knowledge of all the individual LSAT/GPAs for the school?

    It would make sense for him to ask the admissions dean for the 25/50/75 numbers to keep track of how the school is doing in recruiting, but it doesn't make sense for the dean to go through all the raw admissions data on his own.

    If you want to blame the dean for anything, it's not that he should have verified the data himself, but that he should have put in place an independent auditing system that would routinely review a whole host of information.

  13. @7:52

    This is one of the most comprehensive stories I have seen in terms of the timeline of events and what actually is going on at these law schools. It seems like there would be a conflict of interest for someone to have oversight over both admissions and financial aid.

    Further still, the fact that NO ONE checked or audited what this guy was doing while he generously got bumps in his salary year-after-year is a travesty.

    They paid him well for a reason, and we all know what that REASON is.

    In a perverse twist of fate, this poor law grad f*cked over the rest of the subsequent classes by lining his pocketbook with the fraudulent numbers he was pumping out.

    And, of course, this will be "lightly" treated as some white-collar, innocuous misrepresentation---all the while so many people are suffering paycheck-to-paycheck trying to climb out of the hole that they had no idea this guy was digging for them.

    Nothing will happen to this guy. Nothing will happen to the school. They already go their money: he got his high salary; the school got their acclaim and tuition dollars. Meanwhile, many of the grads on the other end of this got nothing.

    How common is this??? That is what I want to know. I fear it is likely the rule and hardly the exception.

  14. There is no way that higher ups didn't know what was going on at Illinois. The ABA needs to investigate this. Of course, the ABA won't make their conclusions public because of privacy considerations, just like Penn State.

  15. @9:12

    "Why would one of the key goals of the dean be to have an intimate knowledge of all the individual LSAT/GPAs for the school?"

    You seriously didn't just ask that, did you? Were you being humorous or ironic?

  16. @9:12

    BL1Y, don't you think that keeping a close watch on the most pivotal numbers of 400+ people determining the law school rank would be a high priority on the dean's list? If I were being paid over 200K per year, I'm certain I could fit in the time to pay attention to what supplements my "bread n' butter"---to secure my position/salary today as well as in the future. It seems like all of that would be of the utmost importance to a DEAN.

  17. "In the next few days, a couple more major stories are going to be published in very high profile media venues, regarding various aspects of this crisis."

    Lawprof: When these stories break, will you list them on your site? Thx.

  18. Depends on what you think is a close watch. He should know what the numbers are and how they're trending, but he finds that out by asking the admissions dean, not by compiling all the data himself. He also finds out how many students are enrolled by asking the admissions dean, not by doing a headcount. The dean also doesn't go down to the payroll office and look at pay stubs to make sure professors are paid the right amount.


    Even more from this fraudster.

  20. @9:44am

    I simply don't buy into your assessment of the disconnect between the law school dean and the admissions dean. You speak as if you have worked for a law school. I have worked for TWO...supposed top 20 schools. The Dean and the Admissions Dean and many other parties( a committee) go over each applicant's personal statement, background, financial aid packages, and, yes, GRADES (including GPA and LSAT). We are all INTIMATELY familiar with each individual because it is how we determine where to section out the classes accordingly. We have excel spreadsheets that detail the spread of the entire class, including how reflective each section accurately reflects that overall spread.

    To think that the highly-ranked Illinois law program doesn't do something remotely similar and, instead, relies upon ONE PERSON...borders on the OUTRAGEOUS.

  21. @9:47

    "Pless was responsible for reporting the data, with his salary linked the law school's national ranking."

    That statement encapsulates EVERYTHING in that article. Basically, they allowed him to police and monitor himself. Oh yes---like that ever works, considering he was a poor, otherwise jobless, former law grad---hahaha.

  22. Obviously this particular story came out because of a whistle blower inside the law school scam, so to speak.

    I have a feeling there's a lot more where that came from.

  23. I hope the hearings actually happen. I live in the DC area, and would take some time off work to go in person. Anything to bring more attention to this issue and precipitate change.

  24. These are exactly the type of stories that are going to blow the roof off this scandal.

  25. LawProf - are you able to address what an annual budget of a law school actually looks like? What % of revenue are going to prof salaries, what percent to the greater U because the law schools are cash cows, what % to keeping the lights on?

    We've established how quickly tuition has grown and how classes are taught much the same way, but what does an annual law school budget look like? How much is being spent? How has the budget apportioning changed from budgets 30 years ago?

  26. 10:29: I'll be talking about that subject in a future post.

  27. At Penn State, an assistant football coach caught another assistant raping a young boy in the showers. He told the head coach, Joe Paterno. Joe Paterno told two Penn State administrators. The administrators told NO ONE ELSE. They did not call the cops. They did nothing.

    Do you still think the "criminal" label is not apt for academic administrators?

  28. The New York Attorney General should investigate the NY schools. There is no way that the class action law suits can prevail. The law schools have too much political power with the judges. All NY law school deans supported salary increases for NY judges. The deans and profs mingle with judges at bar and similar events. Deans and profs arr friends of the judges. There is no way common plaintiffs can prevail against that. On the other hand the AG's office has been very good about protecting consumers against big interests in recent years. Write,

    Office of the Attorney General
    The Capitol
    Albany, NY 12224-0341


  29. Unbelievable!

    To quote the article: ""That way, I can trap about 20 of the little bastards with high GPA's that count and no LSAT score to count against my median. It is quite ingenious," Pless boasted in a 2008 e-mail exchange with an acquaintance about iLEAP, the early admissions program now in its fourth year. A law school class' median LSAT scores and GPAs are key factors in influential U.S. News & World Report rankings, and documents released by the university this week show the school's preoccupation with them."

  30. ""That way, I can trap about 20 of the little bastards with high GPA's that count and no LSAT score to count against my median. It is quite ingenious,"

    I guess they don't teach the "don't memorialize your fraud in random emails to friends" rule at U of I's law school.

  31. @9:56: Illinois did have a spreadsheet. If you read the report, or even just the juicy bits, you'd learn that the fraud was committed by altering numbers on the spread sheet, and only a few numbers were changed.

    For anyone to catch it, they'd either have to create a second spreadsheet from the raw data and compare, or have an extraordinary Psych-type memory. "Wait a second... sections 1, 2, and 4 each have a student with a 165 LSAT/3.7 GPA, but I remember there were only 2 such people, and hey ...where's that 165 LSAT 3.65 GPA I remember seeing earlier?

  32. Maybe law schools should engrave these words over their entranceways, instead of those "justice for all" phrases: "Trap the little bastards"

  33. The Illinois dean is responsible in three ways:

    1. He should have worried about fraud given the inside discussion of how difficult it would be to meet the LSAT/GPA goals--and how miraculous the numbers looked. See the Chicago Trib article.

    2. He should have realized that the system in place (bonuses tied to meeting numerical goals, overwhelming focus on the admissions numbers) would create incentives for fraud--requiring at least some monitoring system.

    3. Most important, the whole ethos of focusing obsessively on entry stats is wrong and has produced all sorts of problems in legal education. Ok, highly credentialed entrants may be somewhat better students and lawyers (maybe). But that's not why schools obsess about the numbers; it's because these numbers affect their US News ranking. Placing those rankings ahead of all other objectives (sound education, reasonably priced education, excellent service to clients) is just wrong.

    This third point applies to all law schools, even when they are scrupulously honest about the numbers--and it ties into the tuition/debt issues discussed here. My understanding is that law schools devote a significant (and greatly increased) part of their budgets to merit scholarships. That sounds good, but it's really a zero-sum arms race to attract students with the best numbers. I suspect what happens is that the students in the bottom third to half of the admitted class subsidize the students at the top of the class. I.e., increase tuition and then give merit scholarships to the students we're trying to attract from a slightly higher ranked school. This process gives the schools better admissions numbers, and increases their US News ranking, but it simply makes legal education more expensive for those who (statistically speaking) may have the hardest time getting decently paid jobs. Wrong, wrong, wrong.


    "They never had any kind of control system." HOW CONVENIENT.

  35. 12:33 re: your third point - so, in other words, it's unreasonable to give the best opportunities to the most talented students. Outrageous!

  36. I'm a beneficiary of the "Merit Scholarship" arms race and I feel incredibly shitty seeing all of my fellow 3L's who had to go into six figures of debt for a degree that won't get them a job. Essentially they took out federal loans that, in small part, are "paying" my tuition.

  37. Lawprof wroteL
    "I have a feeling there's a lot more where that came from."

    I suspect that many law schools read about that admissions scam with a sense of terror. They all likely have a few skeletons in their numbers. There will be a few more similar stories coming out.

    I suspect anyone inside with knowledge of any skeletons will be looking for a big bonus to stay quiet this year.

  38. Thank you for this blog, and for continuing to raise the issues, despite whatever career difficulty it causes you. It's the right thing to do.
    I went to a Top 30 law school. I was interested in the law, but primarily was interested in earning a degree that would enable me to always have steady work, versus the low-paying philanthropic work I had been doing. How wrong I was. I now have additional debt but have been unable to find legal employment sufficient to pay my bills. I hung my own shingle out of desperation, and consult and do various other things in an effort to pay the bills. I'm still in the red most months and the hole is getting deeper.
    I'd say your blog both raises the issue to the larger audience - and I second the writer's comment who suggested the ABA follow the AMA and shut down 100 or so law schools - and also helps those like the depressed law graduate who took his own life. I know many people struggling, but most of us still feel like "What's wrong with me? Why can't I get a job?". I think your blog helps law grads know it's not them personally... Thanks.

  39. I urge anyone with inside knowledge who currently works or had worked in law school admissions to post all of your inside information. The truth will eventually have a vice grip on these charlatans once and for all.

  40. 12:43 If you examine the facts, I think you'll find that this is a key reason why tuition has gone up so much. Law schools used to charge much lower tuition and gave few scholarships. In those old days, the scholarships were mostly need based. Now law schools have much higher "rack rate" tuition and, yes, the least qualified students at each school are most likely to pay that full rate and end up with the heaviest loans. But schools aren't doing this to help the most qualified students--if that were the purpose, they could have kept the old, lower tuition for everyone. The point is to game the system as much as possible by trying to nab the highest LSAT and GPA numbers for the entering class. The competition itself exerts a continuous upward pressure on tuition.

    The same thing has happened at many colleges and is widely documented. I believe that there was even a GAO (government accounting office) report that pointed out this problem in the cost of legal education.

  41. 12:43 you are correct, except you failed to say why. The why is US news. Those of you who are paying higher tuition are subsidizing the scholarships.

  42. The Oregon State Bar Bulletin published "Cream and Sugar with That Law Degree" as its front cover article.

    I strongly recommend the read. It's a lengthy survey of all the criticisms of the lucrative law school industry and the tactics Oregon's law schools use to massage their employment numbers, such as fellowship programs that end at the close of the 9-month reporting period for US News & World Report.

    Let's hope that other state bar associations follow Oregon's lead and start publicly denouncing the $150,000 rip-off called legal education.

  43. 1:22--I'm not sure the why is *just* US News (and you may not intend that). They set up a system and incentives, but other people choose to respond to that system. US News is sort of in the position of the Illinois Dean--they're responsible for the system and incentives. But surely the deans and faculty at all of the law schools, who have consciously and eagerly participated in this scholarship/tuition free-for-all, are responsible too. In fact, aren't they sort of analogous to the Illinois admissions dean? Not in doctoring numbers, but in knowingly taking actions that would harm students overall? That's the part that gets me.

  44. I read that 20% of law school budgets is merit scholarships. On the other hand need scholarships have disappeared at most law schools.

  45. 12:33: Yes, the dean is responsible for having an easily manipulable system with an incentive to be manipulated, and no procedure for regular audits.

    What I disagreed with is that the dean should have gone through the data and audited it himself.

  46. How would you even administer need based schollies at the grad level?

  47. @2:49: You mean because all college students are basically living at or below the poverty level, so everything would qualify for a need based scholarship, except for a few fools leaving gainful employment to start a second career?

    Odds are they would look at parents' income, even though not everyone's parents are willing to help out with the costs.

    What would make more sense is to put the scholarships on the backend, help out people making less money after graduation.

  48. With the average debt load being what it is I doubt many people's parents are helping out with costs, nor should they have to when their kid is 22 years old.

    A few schools already have programs like this structured very similar to IBR except the school makes the payments over a period of ten years. Employment numbers being what they are I highly doubt this would work at most schools.

  49. Somewhat related: Florida considering a shift of public college funding priorities from liberal arts to hard sciences:

  50. @12:43
    "12:33 re: your third point - so, in other words, it's unreasonable to give the best opportunities to the most talented students. Outrageous!"

    Objection; the argument assumes facts not in evidence.

    Having worked in standardized test prep & standardized testing for about 8 years (and now I'm a college administrator -- yes, I personally am everything that's wrong with the American system of education) I can assure you that the LSAT is junk. (Though if you have evidence that many practicing lawyers regularly sit down to decide how to allocate a group of 6 birds among 4 roosting trees based on their colors and which ones like to sit together, do let me know.) College GPA is perhaps relevant, but GPAs are not really commensurate between schools or between majors, and yesterday's careless party kid may well be tomorrow's serious, mature law student -- and vice-versa.

    This is not to say that these metrics are completely worthless; a 4.0 student is likely better than a 2.6 one. But none of these would-be impartial metrics are truly as objective as we'd like to claim; and most importantly, they are all entirely too fuzzy to operate at the level of resolution needed to distinguish among all the well-qualified candidates. The difference between a 174 and a 178 is three or four missed questions, i.e. a slightly off morning. The difference between a 3.84 and a 3.9 is course load and whether the student was challenging himself, or whether one was an engineering major, or if a department has hard graders. The level of resolution is such that distinctions are made without a difference.

    Ultimately the only way to determine the most talented students -- to the extent that term even means anything at all -- is by performance in law school. On that metric, the best opportunities typically are presented to these most talented students. Unless, of course, the other candidate took his Gentleman's C at Yale.

  51. @9:45: Having taught both LSAT prep and formal logic, I can assure you that while the games do involve contrived, irrelevant scenarios, the logical reasoning skills needed to work through them are relevant to any sort of rigorous intellectual thought.

    The logic games are a bit like having a football player run through a tire drill. How often is a football field going to be covered with tires you have to run through? Never. Does your ability to quickly go through the drill tell us something about your abilities on the field? Absolutely.


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