Monday, October 31, 2011

The tuition bubble: coming soon to a presidential debate near you

This story in the Economist does a good job of capturing the broad outlines of a crisis that's been building in higher education for a generation now: that is, ever since colleges and universities realized they could expand their financial operations via tuition paid by federally-guaranteed loans, that could be issued with little or no consideration given to whether those who took out the loans would be able to pay them back.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Do law faculty care about what happens to their students?

Lemuel asks:

Something I'd be interested in hearing about is how law professors tend to view their students, including whether they only really care about the top x%, so that bad outcomes for everyone else don't really matter to professors.
 This is an important question, and the answer helps explain why legal education is a mess right now.  Of course at the individual level the answer is going to vary considerably, but as always what matters for the purposes of institutional analysis isn't individual behavior per se, but rather the structural effects institutions have on that behavior.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Law school climate change

Over the past few months I've found that, when it comes to the crisis facing law students and graduates -- and therefore, eventually, law schools -- law faculty and administrators tend to fall into four categories, which can be analogized to the categories people fall into regarding their reactions to climate change.  (I'm not making any assertions about the merits of various climate change arguments in this post, as it's a subject I know nothing about beyond what I read in the papers.  What I'm interested in is the usefulness of the analogy).

First, you have your flat-out Deniers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Know when to walk away, and know when to run

The primary purpose of this blog isn’t evangelization; nevertheless I suppose it was inevitable that both current and prospective law students would end up asking me for advice about what, given my take on the situation, I think they should do now.

Giving advice is always tricky, especially when you’re dealing with something as potentially complex as the decision to go to, or to stay in, law school.  For one thing such a decision always involves personal factors that someone who doesn’t know the person well can’t take into account properly. So I don’t try to tell people who ask for this kind of advice what to do, but I do try to give them the straight story as I see it (from my unavoidably limited perspective etc etc etc).

Monday, October 24, 2011


(1)  There's an old fable about several blind men and an elephant. One man grabs the elephant's trunk and thinks it's a rope, another feels its legs and thinks it's a tree, etc.  I've been struck by how certain people like to insist that the "real problem" with legal education and the legal profession is X not Y or Z. The real problem is transparency about employment numbers, or it's educational debt, or it's the supply/demand mismatch for new attorneys, or it's that law faculty know nothing about being lawyers, or its the practical uselessness of law school, or it's that so many lawyers hate their jobs.  Why one of these things is supposed to be the "real" problem puzzles me, especially given that obviously they're all important issues, and indeed all inter-related to a significant extent.  Indeed they could all be re-characterized as different facets of a single elephantine problem.

(2)  George Orwell, c. 1939:

In a prosperous country, above all in an imperialist country, left­wing politics are always partly humbug. There can be no real reconstruction that would not lead to at least a temporary drop in the English standard of life, which is another way of saying that the majority of left-wing politicians and publicists are people who earn their living by demanding something that they don't genuinely want. They are red-hot revolutionaries as long as all goes well, but every real emergency reveals instantly that they are shamming. One threat to the Suez Canal, and ‘anti-Fascism’ and ‘defence of British interests’ are discovered to be identical.
I wonder the extent to which this insight would apply to legal academics, assuming for the moment that internal attempts at reform were to get to a point where they appeared to be threatening the current standard of living of law faculty? (Needless to say at present this is a purely hypothetical situation, but even as a hypothetical it's disturbing enough to the status quo to engender hysterical denials when anyone suggests that genuine structural reform is necessary).

In other words any sensible reform of legal education would lead to law faculty working more, or at least working more in ways that actually lessen the cost of legal education, such as teaching more classes, while getting paid less.  Since as a matter of short-term self-interest no individual faculty member desires these obviously horrifying outcomes, the only ways to get law faculty to consider implementing such changes are to appeal to longer term self-interest (accept somewhat painful reforms soon or have more painful ones -- such as unemployment -- imposed by external economic forces later), and to moral suasion, by pointing out that our self-interest is currently at odds with our ethical obligations to our students.

(3)  I had a long chat last week with a journalist for a national publication regarding this blog. She was curious about, among other things, what inspired me to start the thing in the first place, what I was trying to accomplish, and how long I planned to keep going.  She assumed I had planned the blog for some time before launching it, when in fact I started it an hour after getting the idea.  This piece of information seemed to take her aback a bit, and she asked me if I ever regretted starting this blog.

The answer is that of course I regret starting this blog, at least a couple of times every day.  This blog certainly isn't good for my "career" in conventional terms, to put it mildly.  And then it struck me that the only reason I've ever written anything worth reading is because I've never bothered to think strategically about whether it was a "good career move" to say this or that in print.  This has led me, inevitably, to say things in print that I later regretted for their tone, and even occasionally for their substance.  But I'd rather make those sorts of mistakes than spend my life censoring myself on the basis of whatever career fantasy I had at the moment.  How many legal academics have kept their mouths shut over the years because they considered how X would sound to the ears of this or that hiring committee, or worse yet to the Senate Judiciary Committee?  (The fantasy of a federal judgeship, or in its most florid form a SCOTUS appointment, is a very common one in our little corner of the world).

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse. 


Friday, October 21, 2011

Bleg: Help Circulate the Law School Transparency Petition

In the last week of September I, or rather my research assistant on my behest, circulated the Law School Transparency Petition to the administrations of all 200 ABA law schools (with the exception of the University of Colorado), with a request that they circulate it to their faculties.  The following law school administrations agreed to do so:

Albany Law School
University of Arkansas School of Law
University of Louisville  School of Law
University of Mississippi School of Law 
University of Montana School of Law 
William Mitchell School of Law

Five law school administrations affirmatively refused to circulate it, invariably on the ground that they have an institutional policy against circulating petitions to faculty, and that such requests should be sent to individual faculty directly.   We haven't heard from the other 188 schools.

I'm now asking the readers of this blog to help circulate the petition to law school faculty at these 193 schools.  I suggest the following procedure:  If you attended or currently attend an ABA-accredited law school other than those listed above, please volunteer to circulate the petition to the faculty of that school.  You can do so either by individually emailing all the school's faculty members the letter below, or by emailing one or more selected faculty members -- ideally, people who might remember you -- and asking them to circulate the letter below to their colleagues, whether or not the selected faculty members are willing to sign the petition themselves.

In the alternative, if you're a law school faculty member and are willing to circulate the letter to your colleagues, please let me know.

Here's the letter:



Please circulate the petition below to your faculty.   Please note that the names of signatories to this petition will not be made public until at least 100 law faculty at ABA-accredited schools have signed it.

"We, the undersigned,  believe it is imperative that all law schools provide prospective law school students with information  that will allow them to accurately assess their prospects for finding appropriate employment within the legal profession upon graduation from the schools they are considering attending. We therefore call upon the American Bar Association to require all schools it has accredited to release clear, accurate, and reasonably comprehensive information regarding graduate employment, by for example implementing the proposals outlined in Part III of the Law School Transparency Project's white paper "A Way Forward: Transparency at U.S. Law Schools" (, so that prospective students may obtain adequate information regarding their likely future employment prospects."

Institutional affiliation*

*Institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only, and do not imply approval on the part of the signatory’s employer.
The petition can be signed by simply sending an email indicating the sender wishes to sign it to:


Paul Campos
Professor of Law
University of Colorado


Readers who want to participate in this effort should email me via this blog, to avoid redundant efforts.  (Feel free to note in comments if you're willing to do this for your own school).  Next week I'll post an update regarding how many law school faculties have been contacted via this method.
Thanks in advance.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

ABA addresses the law student debt crisis

Via its Facebook page for law students.  (BTW for the purposes of this sweepstakes I am, as a tribute to Andy Bernard, a Cornell law student, Class of 2013. Right now the grand prize is only $828.50 so I'm not overly excited, although my students would probably tell you I could surely use that Brooks Brothers gift certificate.)

In all seriousness, this kind of thing in its own small way signals the extent to which many of the profession's authority figures remain clueless regarding the nature of the crisis current law students and recent grads face.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Happy Trillion Dollar Student Loan Day

This story doesn't attempt to precisely specify the time of the blessed event, but apparently it will come before the end of the year.

The following observation seems to be based on the theory that blood can be extracted from stones after all:

Taxpayers and other lenders have little risk of losing money on the loans, unlike mortgages made during the real estate bubble. Congress has given the lenders, the government included, broad collection powers, far greater than those of mortgage or credit card lenders. The debt can't be shed in bankruptcy.
On  a related note, I'd like to attend a faculty meeting at which everybody had been assigned the task of reading the responses to the questions posed here (or at least the responses to the fifth question).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The professor's apprentice

The WSJ has a story ($$, free summary here) about how more than 20% of corporate clients are now refusing to be billed for big firm work done by first and second year associates "in at least some matters."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Calculating the return on an investment requires taking into account the cost of making the investment

Ilya Somin cites Aaron Taylor's recent column as evidence for the proposition that going to law school is still on the whole a good investment.  Taylor's argument relies on the BLS statistic that the nominal unemployment rate among lawyers in 2010 was 1.5%.   We can begin to get a sense of how far this statistic is removed from social reality by observing that around half of the people who received law degrees from ABA-accredited schools between 1974 and 2008 were not working as lawyers in 2008 (Note this statistic does not take into account the effects of the current recession, or the employment status of the 130,000+ graduates of ABA law schools over the past three years).  Obviously large numbers of these graduates left the practice of law more or less voluntarily. Just as obviously, the number who didn't is many orders of magnitude greater than 1.5% of all ABA law school graduates.

We should also note that, even if we take the highly problematic NALP data at face value, use a generous definition of what counts as a real legal job (one that includes temp work as well as permanent positions), and once again ignore the effects of the current recession, at least one third of law graduates between 2001 and 2007 did not obtain jobs as lawyers within nine months of graduation.  And Somin/Taylor's discussion of the salaries lawyers supposedly make is no more reliable than their glance at employment percentages.  (NALP entry-level salary data is nearly useless since it omits more than half of law school graduates; at many schools less than a quarter of graduates report any salary data).

Furthermore Somin's analysis assumes not only an increasing demand for legal services going forward, but an increasing demand for the legal services provided by graduates of ABA law schools.  These two things are hardly identical, as outsourcing, technology, and other economic factors have all made increasingly clear over the course of the last decade.

But what's most problematic about Somin's post is that it doesn't contain a word about the cost side of the cost-benefit equation.  Law school is, in real terms, several times more expensive than it was 25 years ago.  Getting a law degree now routinely costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in high-interest nondischargeable loan payments, without even taking into account opportunity costs.   It seems too obvious to point out out that a stock that might have been a bargain at $10 a share could be a terrible investment at $40 per share, yet it's not unusual to read legal academic discussions of whether law school is still a good investment that feature little, or as here, simply no discussion of the effect the skyrocketing cost of legal education has on its long-term economic value to potential law students.

I applaud Somin's willingness to consider questions such as whether ABA accreditation standards, bar passage requirements, and the like are creating major inefficiencies in the price of legal services. But what lies at the root of the current crisis is, above all, the amazing rise in the cost of legal education, which has risen four times faster than even the rapidly rising cost of an undergraduate degree.  No discussion of this general topic can afford (literally) to ignore the cost part of a cost-benefit equation.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Clueless Generation, Occupy Wall Street, and the law school crisis

 Updated Below

I have a piece in Newsweek/The Daily Beast on the Occupy Wall Street protests and their relation to, among other things, the crisis in legal education.  I should emphasize that baby boomers are very diverse group, both sociologically and politically, and that here I'm addressing the reactions of a particular subgroup: "successful" middle-aged professionals who have some sort of memory of the late 1960s, and who in many cases have at least in theory some sort of sympathy for anti-establishment politics, but who are taking an attitude of sniffy incomprehension toward the OWS protests (which are now spreading to cities all around the country, and even the world).

I first heard about OWS from a commenter on this blog, who noted he was going down to Wall Street on the very day the protest started.  And indeed American law schools are at present a fertile ground for producing exactly the sort of people -- young, over-educated, under-employed, heavily debt-ridden -- who formed the initial core of the protesters.

And I do believe that, if something is happening here and we don't know what it is, this is in part a product of a new generation gap.  I graduated from college in 1982, at the bottom of what was until the present situation the worst post-WWII American recession.  My class of associates at Latham & Watkins was, I believe, the first class to be actually Lathamed: As I was starting my first law teaching job in the fall of 1991, the firm was laying off a good portion of the people I had been hired with just two years earlier.  So it's not as if people of my generation, broadly defined (I was born toward the end of the baby boom -- my first political memory is of LBJ appearing on TV to announce he wasn't running for re-election, and my second is of MLK's assassination later that week), haven't been through economic turmoil of various kinds.  But what's happening now is different.

I went to one of the best public universities in the country when in-state undergraduate tuition was about $3,500 per year in 2011 dollars.  I went to that same university's law school for not all that much more. This allowed me to graduate from law school with $20,000 of total educational debt (a little less than $40,000 in present dollars).  And I didn't enter a world in which the job I had not been trained to do was in the process of being handed over to a contract attorney, a person in India, or a machine.  These things make all the difference when trying to understand why "kids today" -- even, or especially, highly educated kids, who followed all the rules and did everything right -- are beginning to take to the streets.

Update:  Pictures and words.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Are law students rational?

A law professor writes:

There's one concrete thing I've noticed you haven't mentioned on your blog yet. At least half of all students who graduate from law school are ending up in jobs that do not require or prefer a JD. What purpose does legal education serve for that student?

 a. It is a $180,000 millstone.
 b. It has taught that student to think like a lawyer.

Even assuming that (b) is actually quite valuable independent of the ability to practice law, this defense of legal education has one teeny tiny little flaw: Students don't learn to "think like a lawyer" in their third year of law school. They basically don't learn anything at all. So let me recast that. What purpose does the third year of legal education serve for a student who will never work as a lawyer?

a. It is a $60,000 millstone.
b. Uh.

It occurs to me that current law students are hardly powerless. They are just taken for granted. We assume that they'll mostly return for 2L and 3L because mostly they have. If half of the 3Ls who felt hopeless about their future walked away from their final semester, 95% of the law schools in this country would be on their knees this January. question is this: Why don't they make like rational economic actors and get out?
On a related note, commenter Avor opines:

Forgive me for beating a decayed horse, but I still don't think anyone has really given a satisfactory answer to this question:
What difference will it make if the focus is on the reporting and not the easy money for loans? Law schools are NEVER going to be unable to fill 250 1L seats each year because there are more than enough folks who think they're going to be the exception to whatever negative numbers are out there.

Is it just that then everyone will feel better because they can then truly point the finger at the students/graduates and say "you have no excuse--you should have known better..."?

It's still going to be the same number of un/under-employed JDs. It's still going to be the same amount of loans/debt that needs to be forgiven at some point (death or discharge...whichever). The law schools are still going to get the same amount of tuition, which is going to continue to increase along with everything else, and education in particular.

Take a look at any of the school statistics on their ABA sheets. No matter how good the advice is to drop out after 1L or 2L, almost nobody is doing it.

The numbers still seem like a red herring to me. That's not to say there isn't merit in the claim that the schools should not be putting out bogus numbers, it's just to say that it won't change the outcome.
The optimistic take on this issue is that we have here is a classic information problem, and that if potential law students, or even as in the professor's example current ones, understood their actual situation the problem would be in large part solved by market correction: applications to law school would plummet, and various schools would have to shrink, cut tuition, or simply close. Let's call this the Rational Actor model.

The pessimistic take is that for a variety of reasons people are not actually rational maximizers of their own utility to nearly the extent classical economic theory claims, and that, as I believe David Ricardo or Karl Marx first pointed out, there's a sucker born every minute. Call this the Lottery Ticket model.

An acquaintance of mine, a professor at a top business school, thinks state-run lotteries are just wonderful because they function as a tax that people pay voluntarily.  (In the typical state lottery half the revenues from ticket purchases are distributed in winnings while the other half are kept by the state).  Now if one considers a lottery ticket an investment buying tickets would appear to make no sense, as the expected long-term return on investment is negative 50%.   Of course all human behavior can be modeled in "rational" economic terms if one simply makes enough assumptions, and the obvious assumption to make here is that playing the lottery is not investment but rather consumption: people get positive utility from the mere act of gambling, without regard to whether gambling is otherwise negative sum to them, so voila, conceptual problem solved.

But this is hardly the only way to solve the apparent conundrum. We could for instance assume that people engage in magical thinking ("I am a lucky person," or "I'm due to win" or "My horoscope says today is a good day to gamble" etc.).  Or we could assume that it's rational for a person in a sufficiently desperate situation to engage in behavior that creates a sense of hope that this situation can be changed in a significant way.  This assumes that hope for the future is valuable enough to purchase at even what appears to be an otherwise unacceptably high price, given the person's present circumstances.

I suggest that all these models help explain why law schools continue to have no problem filling their classes, even as the price of law school skyrockets and the ROI from a law degree plummets.  (In what follows I'm ignoring those students for which law school continues to be, from an ex ante perspective, a rational choice in conventional terms. Clearly there are still many such students, although the percentage of current and prospective law students who belong to this category is, it's safe to say, vastly exaggerated by legal academia as we engage in various forms of self-justification).

(1) Part of the problem is simply informational in the most straightforward sense: prospective students, and to a lesser extent current students, don't realize how bad the job market is, how miserable so many practicing lawyers are, and how much all this is actually going to cost them, both financially and psychically.  This is why transparency matters, although it's very far from a cure-all.

(2) Some law students really are engaged in consumption rather than investment.  These are people who are killing time while acquiring a social status marker, or people who genuinely enjoy the process of legal education itself, without necessarily expecting that the money they're expending will result in a positive return on investment (Obviously such people are either rich or reckless or both).

(3) A lot of law students, and especially prospective law students, engage in magical thinking.  For irrational  reasons they believe the odds don't apply to them: They "believe" in themselves to the point where they dismiss the assumption that having typical qualifications for a student at Law School X means that the most likely outcome for them is that for a typical student at Law School X.  Here, I suspect the self-esteem movement among parents and educators has done a certain amount of intellectual and emotional damage, as has the classic American Horatio Alger/Protestant Work Ethic message that the normal predictions that can be made on the basis of your life circumstances won't end up applying to you if you just work harder than everyone else. (A commenter reminds me that irrational attitudes toward sunk costs play a significant role as well: that one has invested a lot of money in a bad investment isn't supposed to be a reason to keep throwing good money after bad, but few people are wholly immune to this type of thinking).

(4)  Finally, we shouldn't overlook that for a certain number of students law school is both a bad option in the abstract, and the best option that is actually available to them.  For these students, law school is at present the lesser of various evils, in that it at least creates a kind of hope for the future, even if that hope is for something as uninspiring as, realistically, a moderately well-paying job that they won't hate as much as some other things they could end up doing.

In the end, the extent to which the Rational Actor and Lottery Ticket models are more accurate descriptions of the market for law students depends on how many people actually fall into these various categories.  In addition to simply being the right thing to do, increased transparency will allow us to learn much more about that issue than we know at present.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Second thoughts

I got an interesting email from someone who was admitted to a school in the bottom half of the T-14 (unfortunately distinctions that at one time were products of nothing but snobbish obsessiveness are becoming pragmatically significant in terms of decision making) last winter, but who decided to defer his admission for a year for reasons not related to law school per se.  In the months since, he has encountered the David  Segal NYT pieces, other mainstream criticisms of law school, and the scam blog movement.  This is all giving him a number of second and third thoughts, to the point where he's put together a bunch of spreadsheets which attempt to measure the long term costs and benefits of going to the law school to which he's been admitted, based on both how much it's likely to cost and what he's been able to find out about what their graduates actually do.

Among other things he's been taken aback by the fact that borrowing $90K to go to this school could easily end up costing him $300K, once one adds up both the interest charges he'll end up paying on the loans and the cash he and his wife plan to spend (she's going to work while he's in school) to pay for law school while he's enrolled.

Beyond this, he's noticed how much his views on the whole process have changed simply as a product of the fact that he ended up stepping back from the whole application scramble before he actually made the leap:

I think that the reason why 0Ls continue to perceive law school as an attractive option regardless of the costs or employment realities, is that by the time they get information regarding the employment picture, most have already invested a great deal of physical and emotional energy into law school.  They've probably spent months studying for and then taken the LSAT, invested time in researching law schools and taken the employment materials they've provided at face value, found professors to write them letters of recommendation, drafted and revised their personal statements numerous times, and finally sent out their applications only to wait with great anxiety about whether or not they would be accepted.  If they're anything like me, during this whole process, they've also looked back at their college education and all the effort they put into performing well as meaningfully leading up to the moment where they could enter professional school and embark on a rewarding and lucrative career path.  This, paired with the fact that they are constantly being encouraged by classmates, professors, pre-law advisers, and family members (and more or less all of society) to continue their education and pursue a professional degree, deters them from considering that a legal education might be the biggest mistake of their lives.  It was only after I had finished sending out all of my applications in mid-December that I began to casually look more closely at the perils of pursuing a law degree (and by this time I had already been imagining the "perceived" rewards of pursuing a legal career for nearly 12 months). 

The natural attachment that develops from being so committed to a vision of the future is difficult to break away from, even after you become aware of how unrealistic such a future may be. Perhaps many 0Ls simply get the information too late, after they've already invested a great deal of time and effort into the whole law-school process.  At that point, I think it becomes all too easy for most students to simply turn a blind eye to the red-flags being raised by bloggers and in the media.  I suspect if the amount of transparency you (and many others) are demanding becomes the norm, then the number of students seeking to pursue a legal education will rapidly decline.  If many students were deterred before they invested a year or so of their lives in the admissions process (that is, deterred at the outset by the dismal employment numbers law schools would be required to make public on their websites), then I suspect many more would be less inclined to bother with putting in the effort of applying at all and, hopefully, not find themselves attached to a romanticized vision of a future in the legal profession. 
 This seems to me a very plausible account of what could be called the social psychology of the law school admissions process.  Indeed I would add that this general process tends to continue throughout a student's first semester of law school, when engagement and optimism are naturally at their peaks.

For years, I taught a two-semester Property course, and it was always very striking how different the atmosphere was in the classroom on the first day of the second semester.  The students had gotten their grades, which for a great number of them meant that for what at that point had been a couple of years of engagement with certain dreams of the future was coming to what must have felt like an abrupt end.  (And this was before the present crisis.).  For a great many potential law students, it would be all to the good if they could subject themselves to something like that harsh form of reality therapy before they had sunk a semester's worth of costs in law school -- and perhaps more significantly before they had made a commitment to a path that for reasons of social psychology becomes harder to leave the further one walks down it.

Further thought: It also occurs to me that the financial investment people make in the application process might be quite significant in at least a psychological sense.  How much does an LSAT prep course run? Then there are the costs of taking the test, of applying to schools, of maybe visiting a couple . . . And we know that people tend not to be "rational" (in the econ sense of rational) about sunk costs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Law professor solicits fraud as a recruitment strategy

Entering into a loan with the intention of failing to fulfill its terms of repayment is illegal. It is a form of fraud. When a law school recruits prospective students by informing them that the Income-Based Repayment program will allow them to not pay off the loans they will need to take out in order to pay what the law school will charge them for attending, that institution is at least arguably soliciting fraud against the United States government, or more precisely against American taxpayers.

Whether such behavior amounts to soliciting fraud in the technical legal sense is something an ambitious Assistant United States Attorney might want to research. Consider that if student loans were dischargeable in bankruptcy, it would be to say the least legally problematic for a school to solicit business by pointing out that students could discharge their loans in bankruptcy. What Prof. Taylor is recommending is very similar in substance if not in form.  In any case that this is fraud in the broader moral sense of a fraud on the public seems indisputable.

Professor Aaron S. Taylor informs prospective students that law school is still a good investment because, among other reasons, you can borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U.S. government and then stick the taxpayers with the bill:

Of course, not all student loans are created equal. Federal loans are vastly superior to private loans, and fortunately, most law students are able to finance their entire cost of attendance with federal loans only. Interest rates are fixed on most federal loans, and they are much lower than rates offered in the private market. Federal student loans also come with payment grace periods, deferral and forbearance options and an array of repayment plans — the most generous of which being the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR).
Through IBR, debtors with low income, relative to federal student loan debt, are allowed to make reduced payments of no more than 15 percent of their disposable income (defined as the difference between Adjusted Gross Income and 150 percent of the poverty guideline). After 25 years, any remaining loan balance is forgiven. If the debtor is working in a public service job, as a prosecutor, for example, balances are forgiven after just 10 years. IBR and other repayment options help ensure that debtors don’t have to choose between basic necessities and paying their federal student loans. Moreover, the loan forgiveness aspects of these plans are essentially back-end scholarships. (emphasis added)
But hurry -- quantities are limited:

Given the political obsession with the federal deficit, you should probably take advantage of these favorable options while you can. One of the cost-saving “deals” made during the debt-ceiling-debacle ended interest subsidies on graduate and professional school student loans.  These subsidies went to financially needy students and were typically worth thousands of dollars.  So, along with increased tuition, politics could make law school more expensive in the future.

I'm not going to bother to critique Prof. Taylor's egregious abuse of placement and salary statistics. That kind of thing is by now par for the course.  But this business (and I do mean business) of luring unsuspecting marks into 25 years of perpetual quasi-bankruptcy before sticking taxpayers with the bill, and then characterizing this scheme as a generous grant of "back-end scholarships," is the kind of thing that should draw the attention of the relevant authorities.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Comfortably numb

 (Updated below)

Any critique of the set of powerful social institutions that work together to create contemporary American legal education must be as it were political all the way down. (Few things annoy me as much as the conceit trafficked in by "reasonable" centrist types that there are obvious non-ideological solutions to serious social problems, which invariably involve adopting the reasonable centrist's obviously reasonable views.  You can find this conceit in pretty much any Tom Friedman NYT column, and in many a law school classroom, textbook, and law review article that discusses "policy," so-called).

It's true that at present legal education in America is so screwed up that it's possible and indeed necessary to critique it from literally any coherent ideological position.  Libertarians should despise the market distortions produced by its cartel structure and its phony employment stats, cultural conservatives ought to be appalled by the nihilistic tendencies of its standard jurisprudence, i.e., law somehow creates moral obligations although nobody can say why, mild Obama-style liberals should be discomfited by how terribly expensive the whole thing has gotten, and actual leftists, assuming such people even exist any more within the American legal academy in practice rather than in "theory," ought to hate just about everything about the entire enterprise, given that at present it's a practically perfect machine for replicating and reinforcing class privilege in its most invidious forms.

I started looking into this business in a systematic way about a year ago, and over that span I've developed sympathy for all these critiques: or perhaps more accurately potential critiques, since in many ways the most striking feature of the legal academy at present is the absence of genuine critical perspectives of any kind.  My sense -- and I sincerely hope I'm mistaken -- is that the whole thing has gotten so comfortably numb that it's almost impossible to get people to pay any attention to the extent to which in legal academia is in a state that's summarized with a certain piquant cogency by this gentleman's observation.


Anyway, I find this lack of engagement most aggravating in regard to those of my colleagues who consider themselves in any way liberal or even left.  (I have a lot more respect for the Ayn Rand types: at least they don't pretend to care).  If the continuing indifference of law school administrations and faculties to the increasingly scandalous disjunction between the cost and value of legal education demonstrates anything, I suppose, its that class interest trumps putative ideological commitment just about every time.  This isn't exactly something that qualifies as an original or interesting observation, but for some reason I still find the fact itself annoying as heck.

I suppose I'd like some sort of acknowledgement on the part of these sorts of people -- people who "care" about social injustice -- that every time we vote to buy ourselves more goodies we're voting to raise tuition on that ever-growing proportion of our students who can't really afford to pay what we're charging them for what we're selling them.  Maybe, just maybe, we should stop doing that -- or at least we should, under present circumstances, figure out a way to buy ourselves fun new toys (usually described as "improving the quality of what is already the best legal education available anywhere in the world") without charging more than we already charge for our unspeakably valuable services.

Really, why shouldn't every law school in the country at a minimum freeze tuition right now? (Actually law school tuition should be cut drastically but I'm trying to be realistic here). Can we at least discuss that option before hiring six more people and opening two new centers, and building a new this and that chock full of environmentally conscious "green" design features?  And before you get to that, yes I realize law school faculties, and even law school deans, don't set tuition themselves in some direct non-problematic fashion. There are a bunch of central administrators to deal with as well. And a serious collective action problem. And the extent to which the cost of education is a Veblen good. And lots of other problems too. Guess what -- politics is hard!  And in the end this is all about politics, not about the centrist's complacent vision of "reasonable people pursuing reasonable purposes reasonably."

Update: Brian Tamanaha asks why anybody should believe the salary numbers law schools report.

Monday, October 10, 2011

How law faculty get hired

I've had a few requests to discuss the law school entry level faculty hiring process, which obviously has a great deal of relevance to why law schools are the way they are.  Rather than describe the process, I'm going to link to this fairly exhaustive account of it, and make a few comments on Prof. Wendel's on the whole very accurate description (although his account features one huge omission, on which see below).

(1)  An outsider to American law school culture would no doubt find Prof. Wendel's most striking revelation to be that actually knowing something about the practice of law is considered an undesirable characteristic for a tenure-track candidate at most law schools, and that this becomes even more true as the prestige of the school in question increases.  This is not hyperbole: it is a literal description of the situation, as Prof. Wendel (who to put it mildly does not appear to have what could be called a critical perspective on the process) quite candidly admits. Here is his description of an ideal tenure track candidate's ("the classic resume") legal work experience:

A couple of years of practice experience, often at one of the top firms in New York, D.C., Chicago, L.A., or San Francisco.  Some firms, such as Covington & Burling in D.C., Cleary Gottlieb in New York, Ropes and Gray in Boston, and Gibson Dunn in Los Angeles, have a reputation for producing law teachers.  Alternatively, practice experience can be with a high profile government agency like the SEC, EPA, or the Department of Justice, or with a U.S. Attorney's or federal public defender's office (a few state agencies, like the Manhattan D.A. and the Public Defender Service in Washington D.C., satisfy this requirement).  You don't want to have too much practice experience, though.  (Emphasis added)
 Of course as anyone who has done it will readily admit, "a couple of years of practice experience" at a BIGLAW firm is as close to have no actual experience in the practice of law as it's possible to have, while still having gotten paid at some point to do a job that requires a law degree.  Junior associates at big firms are only "practicing law" in the loosest sense, since with rare exceptions a couple of years in such a job will equip someone to do almost nothing that real lawyers do (Imagine expecting a junior BIGLAW associate to handle an actual piece of litigation, or a piece of transactional work, on his or her own from start to finish!).

Now this ought to strike us as a truly extraordinary situation. What could account for the remarkable fact that schools which exist for the purpose of training people to practice a profession not only don't value, but go out of their way to avoid, hiring teachers who know anything about practicing that profession? Prof. Wendel's explanation if anything only deepens the mystery:

One of the oddities of the legal teaching market is that candidates for classroom positions are considered tainted if they have too much of a background in practice.  Because of the obsession, noted above, with being perceived as legitimate by their colleagues in the arts and sciences, law faculties are not looking for people with extensive practice experience as classroom teachers.  One may bemoan the effect this has on legal education, as Judge Harry Edwards did in a famous article on the "growing disjunction" between the academy and the profession, but it is a fact of life.  Only in clinical teaching is practice experience truly valued, as opposed to being viewed with some suspicion.
 Why in the world would relevant professional experience on the part of the faculty of a professional school hurt the perceived legitimacy of that faculty in the eyes of other university faculty?  To the extent it makes sense to locate professional schools within research universities at all, surely the first priority of such schools must be professional training.  I find it difficult to imagine that the typical professor of English or Chemistry would consider it anything other than bizarre to fill law school faculties with people that know next to nothing about being lawyers.  Now it's true that, as Prof. Wendel hints at rather delicately, law schools have a tradition of being treated with some contempt by the academic departments of research universities, because of the suspicion that law school faculty were for the most part not real academics.  And this suspicion was well warranted:  what reason would there be to think that what Prof. Wendel describes as "the classic resume" (high grades at a top law school, a federal clerkship, a couple of years of paper pushing at a big firm) would tend to produce genuine academics?

Of course there's no reason to think this resume would tend to produce genuine lawyers either: hence the absurdity of the contemporary law school, which features faculties full of academic lawyers who are neither academics nor lawyers.

(2) The process described by Prof. Wendel allows us to make certain predictions about it.  First, this process will tend to be strongly self-replicating and self-reinforcing.  This sort of hyper-neurotic obsession with the most superficial paper credentials, in which essentially meaningless gradations in the quality of law schools and law school performance are treated as having enormous significance, will for reasons that should be too obvious to state lead to the continual intensification of that neurosis as a matter of an all but formal institutional policy. If two of your main accomplishments in life are having gotten good grades at a top law school and having secured a federal judicial clerkship you will be strongly impelled to treat these facts as having far more meaning than they actually do. (On the other hand I'm a bit heartened to see that even someone as conventionally-minded as Prof. Wendel is somewhat skeeved out by Brian Leiter's level of obsessive credential-mongering).

Second, it's actually not surprising that genuine experience in the practice of law is so devalued by tenure-track law school faculty, especially at higher-ranked schools.  The contemporary law school has evolved in a fashion that puts almost all of its tenure-track faculty into social positions shot through with bad faith, and the anxiety bad faith tends to generate. Basically, we are supposedly training people to do something we have no idea how to do.  (I should add that even those law faculty that acquire some sort of practice experience beyond a couple of years of scut work at a big firm tend to do things like write memos for the OLC, i.e., frou-frou legal jobs that have little relation to anything the vast majority of their students will ever do).  The last thing we need is anybody around to remind us of this fact (This is one reason why the clinical faculty tend to be institutionally and even physically segregated from the tenure-track faculty).

Third, it's also not surprising that, despite the recent spate at top schools of hiring people with Ph.D.s, legal academia has done almost nothing to reform the ridiculous publication system for legal scholarship.  Law review publication continues to be considered the ne plus ultra of law school faculty scholarship for the very simple reason that this system so strongly protects the interests of tenure-track law faculty.  With fairly rare exceptions, tenure-track law faculty don't have to worry about getting their work published, since it's almost literally true that any putative scholarship a tenure track faculty member produces will be published by some law review somewhere (there were something like 800 of them the last time I checked).   Furthermore, the law review publication system spares the vast majority of faculty from the work of having to participate in the peer review process, on either the productive or the evaluative side. 

(3) Prof. Wendel's otherwise exhaustive treatment of his subject  pretty much completely ignores the role of affirmative action in law school hiring.  This very powerful factor in the process goes unmentioned in his several-thousand word account.  That omission is quite telling, but this post is too long already, and that will have to be a subject for another day.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Two months and counting

Today is this blog's two-month anniversary.  In that time it's generated about 275,000 page views and 4,500 comments, which are very modest numbers relative to many blogs, but which still represent a small but growing audience for an ongoing critique of contemporary American legal education from as it were the inside.

This seems like a good time for a summary of where things stand:

(1)  The fight for transparency regarding employment outcomes has a very long way to go, but is making some progress.  Many law faculty and even a few deans are at least now giving lip service to the idea that the numbers currently available to prospective students are very inadequate and even intentionally misleading, and that reform on this front is imperative (Continuing pressure from Sen. Boxer and Sen. Grassley will be critical going forward).

(2) The transparency debate is also beginning to highlight the pressing need for information on the employment status of law grads at points later than nine months after graduation.  Given the rapidly changing nature of the employment market for attorneys, true transparency will include good information about what law graduates are doing five and ten years down the road, not just a few months after graduation.  Gathering long-term data on statistically representative samples of graduates is neither particularly complex nor expensive -- it's merely a question of generating the political pressure to force law schools to do this.

(3) Transparency, important though it is, represents only a first step toward comprehensive reform.  The fundamental problem with legal education now is that it is far more expensive than it needs to be.  This would be true even if the job market were good. That it's become so bad at the same time that the cost of getting a law degree has skyrocketed merely puts an exclamation point on the long-standing pedagogic deficiencies of legal education, in terms of both edification and vocational training.  Over the last 20 years legal education has gotten radically more expensive, while there's little evidence that it's gotten significantly better in terms of any student-centered standard of evaluation.  The increased cost of legal education has benefited university budgets, law school administrators, and law faculty and staff to a much greater degree than it has benefited law students.  (I'm sincerely curious whether anyone in legal academia is willing to challenge this assertion).

(4) There's tremendous inertial resistance inside the legal academy against recognizing any of this.  On the one hand I've been quite heartened by the expressions of support I've gotten from various people within legal academia.  On the other, it's extraordinarily difficult to get people to even acknowledge the possibility of serious structural problems within an institution that shapes their professional identities, let alone the possibility of genuine structural corruption. The latter possibility is routinely dismissed via the formula "I'm a good person doing my best to do a good job, as are most of my colleagues, ergo, it's impossible that a critique of legal academia as structurally corrupt could be true, since I'm a good person doing my best to do a good job." This reasoning features a major non sequitur: it's perfectly possible to be a "good person" inside a bad system, especially if one of the bad features of the system is its ability to allow "good people" to avoid ever confronting their actual situation.

(5) External events such as the Wall Street protests are some evidence that the smug complacency of the American financial and social elites may be coming under some real pressure.  This is all to the good in regard to the prospects for reforming legal education.   One of the consequences of long-term structural unemployment is that a lot of smart, energetic, and angry people have nothing to do all day.  By churning out 25,000 law graduates every year who will never have real careers as attorneys, American law schools may be making their own unintended contribution to real social change.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sen. Boxer has some questions for the ABA

October 6, 2011
Wm. T. Robinson III
American Bar Association
321 North Clark Street

Chicago, IL 60654-7598

Dear Mr. Robinson:
Following the previous correspondence between your predecessor and me concerning law school reporting practices, I am writing to address some unresolved issues. While I applaud the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education for addressing other deficiencies with current post-graduation employment and salary reporting requirements, I was very disappointed to learn that the Section decided not to require that law schools report the percentage of their graduates working in the legal profession or the percentage of graduates working in part-time legal jobs in its upcoming questionnaire.

In my two previous letters to your predecessor, I indicated my strong belief that the ABA should ensure that post-graduation employment data provided to prospective law students is truthful and transparent. His responses appeared to indicate a similar interest, but unfortunately it is difficult to square those previous statements with the Section’s recent decision.

According to The National Law Journal, a Washington University law professor has determined that for the Class of 2009, at least thirty law schools had 50 percent or fewer of their graduates in jobs that required a law degree. Data published by the National Association for Law Placement indicates that since 2001, only two- thirds of graduates from all ABA-approved law schools obtained legal jobs.

However, we know that most law schools report that nearly all of their students have jobs shortly after graduation. The difference between the information reported by schools and the real legal employment rate for recent graduates is very troubling. That is why requiring law schools to accurately report the real legal employment rate of their graduates is so important.

In a year when a number of lawsuits alleging consumer protection law violations have been filed against ABA law schools, when major newspapers have devoted thousands of words to problems with law school reporting practices, and when two United States Senators have encouraged significant changes to your policies, it is surprising that the ABA is resorting to half measures instead of tackling a major problem head on.

I also continue to have concerns about the lack of transparency for prospective law students in other areas:

Independent Oversight

The Section of Legal Education failed to address the overwhelming need for independent oversight and auditing of statistics reported by law schools. In September, the University of Illinois was found to have been inaccurately reporting law school admissions statistics, the second such school to have done so in recent months. In addition, many lawsuits have been filed alleging that law schools are violating various state consumer protection laws and false advertising laws.

These developments are very troubling, and without independent verification of the information reported by law schools, the opportunity to file inaccurate reports will remain.

Merit Scholarships

As I noted in a previous letter, the New York Times has detailed the recent increase in the number of merit scholarships offered by law schools and demonstrated how scholarships are being used to convince students with high LSAT scores to attend lower-ranked law schools.

While the opportunity to earn a very expensive law degree at a fraction of the cost can be an attractive option for many students, the Times exposed a major problem with scholarship transparency. Many law schools fail disclose how the school’s grading curve and scholarship conditions can combine to prevent the student from understanding the scholarship’s real value.

It was reported that at one school, 57 percent of first-year students in one class year received a merit scholarship, but only one-third of the students in that entire class could receive a GPA high enough to maintain their scholarships. Students should have more information about the risks of accepting merit scholarships so that they can make fully-informed decisions about their future.

I appreciate the ABA’s willingness to make some changes to its reporting requirements, but I believe it is in the best interest of law students everywhere for the ABA to address these remaining issues as soon as possible. I look forward to your response.

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

Via LST, which also reports that during last month's meeting of the ABA legal education Section in which the Section decided that, in terms of transparency, less was more, "certain committee members actually proposed additional ways to count graduate outcomes as desirable, including counting unemployed graduates as employed so long as they had declined a legal offer."

It's a good thing chutzpah isn't a crime.


Submitted without comment:

Law schools, however, have not rushed to embrace the request for more detail.

Susan Westerberg Prager, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, said in an interview Wednesday that she had not studied the proposal of the Law School Transparency group enough to know whether it was a good one.

"It certainly is important that we try to work toward having fairly reported information out there," she said. "I think that one of the big issues here is how do we build frameworks that people can rely on and that are fair ones."

Prager said that much of the anger that is prompting the lawsuits is a result of the bad economy. "We are in a very dramatic and sustained downturn," she said.

While Prager said she can understand the frustration of some recent graduates, she said that she worried that the criticisms being made imply that only full-time work for a law firm was being viewed as an appropriate outcome of a law school education.

"Some people employed part-time may have personal circumstances, such as having a child," she said. Others may find a law degree an asset for careers in government, business or elsewhere, she said. Prager said she objected to the idea that "unless your job is in a law practice, it's not valuable."

Prager stressed that law school leaders want their institutions to be honest with potential applicants about the job market and about all aspects of legal education. "We are very concerned about the need for institutions like ours to reinforce the ethical frameworks that are involved here," she said.


Here's an article in article in the Dayton (OH) Daily News which does a pretty good job of painting a less than pretty picture of the employment situation for Ohio law school grads.  Relying on research from Columbus lawyer and adjunct law professor Jason Dolin, it throws up plenty of red flags for careful and cautious prospective law students.  Unfortunately the modifiers are crucial, since the reported stats, both in Ohio and nationally, understate how bad the employment situation really is.

For example, the first employment stat a reader encounters is this: "The employment rate for new law school graduates in 2010 was 87.6 percent, the lowest percentage in 14 years, according to the National Association for Law Placement."  I fear that this initial framing of the situation, which is of course completely fantastical, tends to have a strong influence on the reader's interpretation of everything that comes later.  After all, even if it were the case that one in eight law grads weren't getting law jobs, that should be a matter of serious concern for people incurring six figure debt to obtain law degrees.  So the reader may think "yes, that's concerning, but I'm not going to be one of those people."

With luck, readers will pay close attention to the story's next graph:  "Even more alarming is the fact that 27 percent of the jobs were temporary and 11 percent were part time, said James Leipold, the association’s executive director. Only about 68.4 percent of graduates obtained jobs where passage of the bar exam was required."  That should set off alarm bells, since the cautious and skeptical reader will assume that this much lower figure is both extremely disturbing in itself -- NALP is admitting that fully a third of grads aren't getting legal jobs! -- and quite possibly still full of statistical fluff, as indeed we all know it is ("Jobs as lawyers" includes temporary contract work, fake jobs invented by law schools to plump up stats, jobs that aren't really full-time or don't really require a law degree but are described that way by respondents, and so forth).

This graph is rather unfortunate: "Despite perceptions that lawyers are all high-paid, the national median
 starting salary for the class of 2010 was $63,000, down almost 13 percent from $72,000 for the class of 2009, according to the National Association for Law Placement."  If only this had included the caveat, "This median is not an actual median for the class of 2010, but is based on unaudited self-reporting by the less than one half of graduates who reported any salary information to NALP.  The true median salary for the class is undoubtedly far lower."

The story does include lots of useful stats on law school debt (Not to nitpick but it could have made it clearer that this was law school debt, not educational debt in general, let alone total unsecured debt. We can at this point only imagine what those numbers look like).

Better yet, it features some nice quotes from Dolin about how disingenuous schools have been about hiding their real employment and debt stats, and about how they should be required to feature this information on their web sites. This is followed by something resembling, if only loosely, actual employment stats for Ohio's law schools.

In 2010, about 63.3 percent of 2010 graduates from (Univ of Dayton) law school held full-time, juris doctorate-required jobs, said Mc-
Greal, the dean.

This compares to 53 percent at the University of Akron, 52.6 percent at the University of Cincinnati, 67.1 percent at Cleveland State University, 61.4 percent at Ohio State and 40.3 percent at the University of Toledo law schools, according to Dolin’s report
UD’s full-time, juris doctorate-required, nontemporary job rate was 57.6 percent, compared to 48.2 percent at Cincinnati and 59.2 percent at Ohio State law schools, according to McGreal and Dolin. Information was not available for the other schools.

It's worth noting that the temporary versus non-temporary distinction here is crucial, and that the stats given out by the three schools that purported to supply that information seem hard to believe. (If nationally NALP reports 27% of law jobs for 2010 grads were temporary, it seems very odd that almost none of the law jobs held by the graduates of the three schools that revealed this information to the reporter were temporary).

Even so, the cautious reader should be seriously taken aback by these stats.  After all, OSU -- a school towards the middle of the top tier -- is revealing that 41% of its grads report they don't have a real law job nine months after graduation.

The other interesting feature of the story is the evidence it provides of how the softening demand for spots in law schools is already having a marked effect on some lower tier schools. Dayton has decreased its entering class by 15% this year, in order to protect its LSAT, GPA, and bar passage numbers, all of which affect its USNWR ranking.  As word about the actual employment situation gets out, more and more schools will be forced to follow suit.

The story concludes with what, under current conditions, represents progress in terms of a law school's dean's willingness to acknowledge serious problems with law school as an investment, and with the failure of law schools to disclose that fact:

McGreal said the job market for law school graduates is certainly tougher than it has been in a long time, but law school is still a good investment for many people.

He said law schools have an obligation to be transparent with applicants about their potential future earnings and the amount of debt they will accrue from student loans. He said only then, can applicants make informed decisions about the return on the investment for a law degree.

“The more information we can get out to applicants — and hopefully it will be accurate information — the better decisions they will make,” he said.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Suits to be filed against 15 more law schools

Via Law School Transparency.

How many people will apply to law school this year and why?

 (Updated below)

A common source of confusion in discussions about the market for spots in law schools is that people mix up applications with applicants.  The ratio of applications to applicants has been increasing for several years, probably because electronic applications are much easier to submit, and because a lot of applicants are getting savvy about demanding that application fees be waived, and law schools are complying.

This past year, 66,876 people applied to ABA-accredited law schools, which means that, if everyone who applied to law school and was accepted subsequently enrolled, about 25.3% applicants failed to get into at least one ABA-accredited school.  But of course not everyone who applied to law school and was accepted ended up enrolling.  If we assume ten percent of accepted applicants didn't end up enrolling that means only 16.7% of applicants didn't find a spot at an ABA school.  (Update: Brian Tamanaha points out to me that the number I quoted was preliminary, and that the final number was 78,900.)

If law schools experience a drop in the applicant poll this year similar to the 11% decline we saw last year, we may well start nearing a point at which the number of applicants who actually enroll approaches or equals the total number of applicants.   Naturally there are things law schools can do to deal with the declining demand for what we're selling: we could loosen admission standards, shrink class sizes, or even take the unprecedented step of  lowering our prices. (The first radical visionary among law school deans who takes the latter step should be handed a Nobel Prize in Economics on the spot).

Speaking of which, classical economic analysis tells us that the size of the applicant poll should be a simple function of the expected return on investment in a law degree minus the opportunity costs of acquiring one.  Of course it turns out that things aren't quite that simple, both because law schools have made it unnecessarily difficult for applicants to estimate a law degree's expected ROI, and because the "bounded rationality" of applicants turns out to be not very good at dealing with even the very suboptimal information they can reasonably be expected to acquire (For example people tend to overestimate the value of a law degree to themselves personally, even when they're fairly good at estimating what a law degree is likely to be worth in general).

Nevertheless, last year's application stats at least suggest that a larger amount of negative information is trickling down into the applicant pool.   Something that would be good to know is: who exactly is being deterred by this information?  Law school being law school, the complete absence of data regarding this matter has not deterred a certain amount of seat of the pants speculation presented as actual knowledge:

Kent Syverud, dean of the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, where applications this year declined more than 11%, said it was a good thing prospective students now were more “clear eyed” about the risks and rewards of a law degree.
“The froth in the applicant pool—those who were just going to law school because they didn’t know what else to do and everyone told them it was a safe bet—is pretty well gone,” he said.

As a once-great writer once said, "isn't it pretty to think so?"

I really don't want to be rude, but this is the kind of thing that drives me a bit nuts about this business we've chosen.  We are, after all, supposed to be academics, not salesmen or spin doctors.  Dean Syverud doesn't know -- indeed how could he? -- what sort of people decided not to apply to law school this past year, or if the decline in applicants is a good or a bad thing in terms of the long-term career prospects of the students who ended up enrolling.  No doubt some people aren't applying to law school now because they don't have any burning desire to be lawyers, and they're being deterred by the realization that it's a risky move (as they should be).  But it's equally clear that some people who would love to be lawyers and would make great ones aren't going because law school has become unjustifiably expensive -- which means that unjustified expense is having harmful effects on the quality of law school student bodies, and therefore on the quality of legal services. What's the relative ratio of these sorts of non-applicants to each other? No one knows, but law faculty have a bad habit -- the product of what the French call a professional deformation -- of acting like they know things they don't. As Matt Leichter puts it:

How do law school deans know the motivations of those who choose not to apply to law school? (There’s a koan for you.) How many potentially brilliant legal minds have wisely chosen to avoid the floundering legal academy? Why should we believe that current applicants are nobler in their intents than those staying away? And why did law schools increase their enrollments 5% per capita between fall 2008 and fall 2010 when they knew or should’ve known that some of their applicants were merely trying to avoid unemployment?

Law schools want the public to think the evil, greedy prospective law students are staying clear. Instead, they should be worrying about when this applicant nosedive will affect their bottom lines.

Update:   A commenter flags this example of law schools aiming to recruit more a more serious, less froth-like generation of applicants:

ATLANTA -- John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta has taken the act of applying to school and brought it into the new age of technology.
 John Marshall has introduced a mobile application that allows potential students to apply for law school from the palm of their hand. Prospective students can visit from their mobile device from their smart phone or their tablet to apply.
"We want students to be able to come to a law school forum, tour our campus, talk to us and apply immediately. If they have to wait until they get home and turn on a computer, they may not apply," Alan Boyer, Associate Dean of Recruitment and Marketing said in a statement released Monday.
 Students who use their mobile device over the next few weeks to apply to John Marshall will also get a waiver of the customary $50 application fee.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Super people and intergenerational justice

James Atlas has a terrific essay in this past Sunday's New York Times on how the higher education game is generating what he calls Super People -- applicants with absurdly hyper-competent resumes, who clearly have been groomed since the age of three to Succeed in Life by their obsessive parents:

Monday, October 3, 2011

A question from a law school dean

 (Updated below)

Dean Rudy Hasl of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law has responded to my request that the Law School Transparency Petition be distributed to his faculty with the following message: