Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What should the law school reform movement be about?

Attempts to reform American legal education feature both short-term and long-term goals.  In this post I'm going to summarize my views on what the most important short-term goals are.

(1) Transparency regarding immediate post-graduation employment outcomes, i.e., what people are doing nine months after graduation.  It can't be emphasized enough how misleading the information law schools advertise on this matter remains.  Employment numbers need to make clear what percentage of graduates are working in positions that are

(a) Full-time; and

(b) Require a law degree; and

(c) Permanent

(C) is a particularly crucial factor that at present is extremely difficult to disentangle from the rest of the available information.  NALP reports that 27% of all jobs filled by 2010 grads nine months after graduation are temporary. A third of these temp jobs are classified as clerkships of some sort, while 68% [!] of "academic" jobs were classified as temporary -- obviously most of these are positions invented by law schools for the purpose of fluffing up their employment stats.    But NALP does not, as far as I've been able to determine, publish disaggregated figures that would make it possible to say precisely, even at a national let alone at an individual school level, how many graduates have real legal jobs, as opposed to part-time and/or temp work.  Looking at the available figures, it's possible to ballpark the national figure as being in the neighborhood of 40% to 45%, assuming of course that the NALP figures themselves are accurate, which, given the methodology employed for collecting them (un-audited self-reporting) is a rather big assumption.

In particular, prospective law students need to be made aware that the salary data published by most schools is worse than useless.  This is the area in which schools have engaged in the most egregious misrepresentations, publishing "medians" and "means" that include only a small minority of graduates, while making no effort to disclose that crucial caveat.

(2)  Real information about longer-term employment outcomes.  From a risk-reward perspective, prospective law students would be much better served by information about what graduates are doing five years after graduation, rather than nine months out.  Five years out, most people who nine months after graduation were trying to piece together a legal career with fake as opposed to real legal jobs are going to have given up. At the more exalted end of the spectrum, a lot of people who got big firm jobs straight out of law school won't have them any more.  As fragmentary as the information is about the class of 2010, we have practically none about the class of 2006, who entered the market during what in retrospect are considered boom times. How many 2006 grads are currently employed in full-time permanent jobs requiring a law degree, and how much are they being paid?

(3)  Promoting a wider variety of models for legal education.  Contrary to the impression some people have gotten, I've got nothing against a graduate school model for legal education per se. I think the Yale Law School is a fine thing -- I just re-read Arthur Leff's essay "Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law," which in my view has more value than 100 standard-issue doctrinal law review articles.  What I don't think is a fine thing is the current extremely half-hearted attempt to maintain 200 Yale Law Schools. We don't need 200 Yale Law Schools, and indeed I doubt we need ten. The Yale Law School is a terrific institution for producing law professors, but we need 400 new law professors every year, not 45,000. 

(4) Pursuing (3) in a serious way will make genuine cost control much more achievable.  The current arms race, triggered by a generation's worth of nonsensical obsessions over "rankings," is a product of the obviously absurd notion that every ABA-accredited law school ought to pursue several to some extent contradictory goals, namely edification, legitimation, social sorting, and last and very much least, teaching people something about the practice of law.  In other words law schools are supposed to be graduate schools, seminaries, prep schools, and vocational training facilities all at once. Accomplishing all four of these things simultaneously is probably impossible even in theory (for instance it's very difficult to critique the legal system in a serious way and legitimate it at the same time). What's not in question is that pursuing all these goals at once, as law schools must at least pretend to do, is fantastically inefficient and therefore far too expensive.


  1. Maybe it's simpler than trying to get 200 ABA accredited law schools to do the right thing (which I believe will never happen).

    Has anyone directed any attention to U.S. News itself? My understanding is that the law school transparency folks are pushing on the law schools themselves, and the ABA to make changes.

    Since law schools will never stop being rankings-obsessed (tis the nature of the beast), maybe we just need to change what matters in the rankings. For example, what if U.S. News used "total amount of debt upon graduation" as a metric for judging law schools? Or, "number of required skills classes?" Or, you know, what if U.S. News required the employed upon graduation data to be fully audited before submission?

    Although law schools may argue that this data is not required by the ABA, this argument ignores that it doesn't prevent them from exceeding ABA standards.

    This makes sense, too. If a law school really is the bestest law school ever, then it's graduates shouldn't be unemployed and mired in debt. If U.S. News is saying that school X is really very prestigious, and worthy of any prospective law student, well then shouldn't the outputs--not just the inputs--matter?

    Although there will be a correlation to some degree (something tells me Yale law students might manage to find a job), some transparency on this point will both properly redirect the schools' foci and, you know, actually inform prospective law students about what they're getting themselves into.

    U.S. News could still keep their rankings focused on LSAT numbers, but their data would just be more fully weighted. Has anyone tried this?

  2. 8:37: That is a good idea. In my experience students do not care how the rankings are made outside of the student selectivity categories. So some tweaks to the categories that drive costs could incentivize school's to lower cost or at least remove the defense that "oh, I had to keep raising tuition and lie about my employment figures because big ol' U.S. News made me!"

    Some categories to add:
    -tuition and fees (where lower means better)
    -annual tuition and fee raise (5y moving average)
    -1 and 5 year graduate value survey
    -salary 5 years out
    -placement in NLJ 250 firms
    -mean time to law school debt repayment

    Some categories to remove
    -peer assessment score (reputation among academics) which incentivizes an arms race for "better" faculty
    -spending per pupil
    -library space (WTF?)

  3. So there's only one job for every two lawyers coming out of law school? Cut the number of law schools in half. Easy solution.

  4. Another idea: Convert the third year of law school into an apprenticeship program. Law student must work for a law firm for one year. There's no tuition but 10% of the apprentice's pay goes directly to the law school. That way, the law school will be incentivized to get the best jobs for the students. Also, the apprenticeship statistics will be easily accessible data for prospective applicants to compare schools.

  5. Why not double the number of legal jobs and their salaries, as long as we're being realistic?

  6. Hofstra claims that 9% of its 2010 class have academic jobs. So if what you say is correct, then almost 1 of 10 Hofstra graduates with jobs work for Hofstra. I wonder what they are having them do.

    Also, law schools should be transparent about student/faculty ratios and other numbers that attract students.

  7. Have we prepared the website listing every law professor and high level administrator, along with whether they agreed to the LST petition yet?

  8. Why did you delete my comment on this very topic last night?

  9. 9:49: Caught in spam filter. It's posted now.

  10. Great post. I completely agree.

    BTW, during my morning commute I was listening to a Joe-6-Pack AM talk radio program, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear the host and his guest mention the tuition bubble as a looming problem.

  11. I'm not sure "transparency" is quite the right word for this movement. That would seem to imply that the law schools know what the real results are, but they're keeping them hidden. In fact, they're just as clueless as anyone else. We need an honest, scientific investigation to figure this out, instead of just averaging self-reported data.

  12. What is an academic job anyway? I always thought it was teaching. Is working in the cafeteria or being a janitor an academic job? I doubt that those students who are employed by their law schools in academic jobs do anything difficult.

  13. I find law schools hiring their own graduates to up their placement figures troubling. Not only are they hiding their true placement figures, they are using current students tuition money to do so. This is like robbing a bank using the banks money.

  14. You forgot about diversity. I thought that was the most important goal.

  15. LawProf,who makes decisions about hiring grads to pump up US News rankings or how to calculate the student-faculty ratio? Deans, OCS, the faculty?

  16. Does anyone know where to get the full data set used to calculate the USNWR rankings? I would love to play around with the data and some new variables to see if I can replicate the current rankings while eliminating some of the factors that create poor incentives.

  17. To the first commenter:

    That would be an excellent thing to do. Even if it was to create another, separate list rather than "change" the almighty current US News list.

    Great idea.

  18. Hand? Meet forehead. And Just when I thought you were getting it.


    Reform and/or end student loans. This is what ruins lives. If you want student loans then allow them to be dischargeable like all other debt in the US and make the schools partially responsible for any defaults. And then transparency won't be quite as important and you can concentrate on #3.

    Jesus you academics are so obtuse (you remind me of what Churchill said about Americans, except for the last part. Look it up). Im so glad I introduced OWS and IBR to you....need any other pointers in that ivory tower?

  19. It is really surprising that number 1 & 2 are even a question given that the legal profession is one that is supposed to be based on ETHICS and has so many professional responsibility requirements. I did not know how schools reported job statistics when I went to law school and was shocked to find out that the stats were so blatantly misleading. It is worse than a used car dealer puffing as with a used car dealer you might just spend $10K rather than $200,000. I attended Brooklyn law school and was fortunate enough to transfer to Harvard after my first year. Many of my friends at Brooklyn still do not have jobs. It is really a shame as the students were smart and dedicated.


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