Friday, September 30, 2011

Bad reasons for going to law school

For the 50,000 people taking the LSAT tomorrow, some inspiring words: 

There are a lot of bad reasons to go to law school.  Here are some of the most common.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What should the lost generation do now?

Yesterday I pointed out that somewhere in the neighborhood of half the people who got J.D. degrees from ABA schools between 1974 and 2008 aren't currently lawyers.  For some reason this fact brought out all sorts of denialist impulses in a lot of commenters, who rushed to point out that lots of people leave the law for reasons other than not being able to find a job.  From the standpoint of economic analysis, people who have law degrees but aren't lawyers are all in a sense "choosing" not to be lawyers: for such people, the costs of being a lawyer have turned out not to be worth the benefits.  That this has turned out to be true for around half the people who got law degrees over the course of a generation -- and of course the relevant time period predates the current crisis, and also to some extent predates the real explosion in the cost of attending law school over the past 10-15 years -- ought to be sufficient to trouble anyone who thinks things will be fine once we can get back to the way things were five years ago.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

553,000 missing lawyers

Courtesy of Matt Leichter, author of the invaluable Law School Tuition Bubble, more fun with numbers:

(1)  How many J.D. degrees were conferred by ABA-accredited law schools between 1974 and 2008? The answer is about 1,340,000.  (This number doesn't include people with law degrees from unaccredited law schools, which are currently pumping out about 10,000 J.D.'s per year, and people with law degrees from other legal systems).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The politics of law school

There are mornings when I confess this project -- meaning not just this blog, but the whole effort to do anything at all about the current state of legal education -- feels like a complete waste of time. This is one of them.  Basically I hate politics: prior to 2008 the sum total of my participation in electoral politics had consisted of voting intermittently in national elections.  I hate petitions and marches and rallies, and I especially hate meetings and committees and trying to organize anything. I don't like to join groups and I'm bad with details. At bottom I'm a socially irresponsible person who would like to be left alone. (In other words the only jobs I'm suited for are being an academic and a writer.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Eve of Destruction

I once had a law professor friend who would come to my office about three times a week to rant about how things couldn't go on this way much longer (this was nearly 20 years ago).  His argument was that law schools were intellectually dead places where mediocre people wasted time analyzing sub-mediocre texts, while sending unprepared graduates off into an increasingly grim and depressing world of legal practice.  The situation was so bad, he thought, that the "whole thing" had to collapse eventually.  He was a genuinely clever fellow and fancied himself a bit of an intellectual revolutionary in the Gallic style, but he was also very naive.  The notion that a social practice that doesn't make any sense on its own terms can't go on more or less indefinitely is rather firmly refuted by history after all. (He has since, like almost all angry young men who turn into not so angry middle-aged men, become Respectable).

Friday, September 23, 2011

ABA decides key to more law school transparency is less transparency

According to Kyle McEntee and Patrick Lynch, the two founders of the Law School Transparency project, the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is about to do something that could well represent a significant setback in the struggle to achieve law school transparency.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Needle and the Damage Done

The execution of Troy Davis says some things about our legal system which apply to lots of issues beyond the debate over the death penalty.  I had some (very tangential) involvement in this matter, so I think I know the case well enough to say the following with confidence: Davis's execution was a grotesque travesty of justice, but it also resulted in the legally correct outcome, if by "legally correct outcome" one means what law professors usually mean when they ask if a case was "correctly decided."

In brief, Davis's problem was that, if he wasn't able to demonstrate, after his conviction, that he had not gotten a full and fair trial -- and he wasn't able to demonstrate this, because the trial he got pretty clearly met the standard of what counts as a "fair trial" in our criminal justice system, at least for the purposes of the existing state and federal laws -- then the only way he could avoid execution was to convince the authorities reviewing his case that he was actually innocent.  (The inimitable Justice Scalia went so far as to declare that even this wouldn't be good enough for the purposes of a federal court review of his case, because "this Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent.").

Davis's execution was a travesty of justice because, in my opinion, the chances are a good deal better than even that he didn't murder Mark MacPhail. It's more likely, in my view, that Redd Coles -- the key witness in the case against Davis, and the man who went to the police in the first instance with the claim that Davis killed MacPhail -- is MacPhail's actual killer.

In retrospect the claim that Davis was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for the crime for which he was executed is completely indefensible, but again, as a procedural matter, once Davis was convicted for the crime in what counts in our system as a fair trial (and he was), then as both a formal and practical matter Davis had to prove his innocence to a fairly high degree of certainty in order to avoid execution. This he was unable to do (I certainly don't claim to know whether Davis was in fact innocent -- I personally think the available evidence suggests he was, but that's quite different from that evidence amounting to a genuine exoneration).  So, as a formal legal matter, Davis's execution did not involve any violation of state or federal law, even though he was probably innocent.

Now this realization should fill any decent human being with a sense of disgust, but it affects certain legal actors with something more like exasperation at the extent to which our current system refuses to achieve "finality" within a reasonable time frame. Justice Scalia's dissent linked above could not be more clear on this point: what matters to him is whether or not the rules have been followed, and if they have then the execution of a probably innocent man is just one of those prices "we" must pay for all the wonderful things we get from the legal system.

As I have argued elsewhere, Scalia represents an extreme example of a certain kind of judge that positively revels in coming to conclusions that are morally revolting but “legally” sound. Judges of this type like these sorts of cases because they demonstrate that law is a supposedly nonpolitical and intellectually rigorous practice, rather than a touchy-feely exercise in doing what strikes the judge as the right thing.

What, after all, could be more nonpolitical and intellectually rigorous than executing an innocent man, simply because “the law” requires that result? In a perverse way, such bloody logic is a kind of advertisement for the supposed objectivity of the legal system, since we can assume that no sane decision maker would reach such a decision voluntarily. (The great legal historian Douglas Hay explained the 18th-century English practice of sometimes acquitting obviously guilty men on absurd procedural technicalities, such as incorrectly calling the defendant a “farmer” instead of a “yeoman,” in similar terms: “When the ruling class acquitted men on such technicalities they helped embody a belief in the disembodied justice of the law in the minds of all who watched. In short the law’s absurd formalism was part of its strength as ideology.”)

"The law's absurd formalism was part of its strength as ideology." Precisely.  This insight applies to many more aspects of the legal system than the revolting spectacle of our contemporary system of capital punishment, which in a case such as Davis's -- which is not in this respect was not unusual -- psychologically tortures the defendant, the defendant's family, the victim's family, and others connected to the case for literally decades before producing what the system then has the temerity to call "justice."  (The climax of this spectacle last night involved Davis being strapped to a gurney with a needle in his arm for nearly four hours, waiting for various legal personages to respond to the question of whether, all things considered, it was finally time to stop his heart with state-administered poison).

That we tolerate this kind of thing so readily helps explain, in its own way, why it sometimes seems impossible to do much of anything about the absurdities and dysfunctions of the system of legal education that legitimates it in the first instance.  Or perhaps it's the other way around: perhaps we tolerate the absurdity of something like the 22-year "process" that resulted in the horror of Davis's final hours because we 're socialized from the beginning of our careers in this system to accept all kinds of absurdity and injustice as natural, inevitable, and therefore legitimate.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

20 years of schooling and they put you on the day shift

Everybody interested in the economics of the American legal profession is familiar with Bill Henderson's analysis of what he's identified as the bimodal distribution of reported entry-level salaries in the current market. Henderson notes this distribution didn't exist 20 years ago, when the median salary for entry-level hires who reported salary data to NALP was $40K, which happens to be exactly the same figure as in 2010, adjusted for inflation ($63K).

Henderson has done invaluable work in this area, and was as far as I know the first legal academic to sound the alarm about what the combination of rising tuition and changes in the market for legal services portended for law school graduates and legal education.  I do wish that he was more emphatic about the limitations of the data he's working with -- for example readers of the linked post, analyzing the NALP data for the class of 2008, could easily miss that the self-reported salary data (update: a commenter points out that while the data is self-reported by graduates to law schools, it's reported by law schools to NALP, which creates further opportunities for intentional and unintentional distortion) includes slightly more than half (22,305) of ABA-accredited law school grads for that year.  The 2009 data is even more problematic in this regard: only 19,471 out of approximately 44,000 graduates (44.25%) self-reported full-time salary information to NALP.

It's of course not surprising that general interest journalism stories, and even those in the legal press, report these figures as if they made up something other than a radically incomplete, unrepresentative, and unaudited data set, but those of us in legal academia concerned with this issue need to keep emphasizing how bad the NALP data is (It's still much better than the purported employment information USNWR reports however, which in turn is better than the job numbers advertised in the ABA Guide to law schools. Needless to say prospective law students are going to look at the latter sources rather than the former.)

Turning from bad data to real anecdotes, here are three such stories I've run into in just the past two days:

(1) A friend of mine, a Michigan law school grad from the class of 2009 who is finishing up a two-year stint on the staff of a federal court, is of course now looking for another job.  He applied for a similar position and was told that more than 1,000 applications had already been received for the two available spots.

(2) A local telecommunications firm put up an ad last week for a part-time legal clerk.  The ad made clear that law school graduates were not eligible to apply: only current law students qualified to be candidates for this part-time $20 per hour position (the position was filled within a couple of days).

(3)  Here's a current job listing from the city of Denver for a judicial assistant.  The job description, which was obviously written by a lawyer, sounds vaguely like entry-level associate work at a lot of big firms.  This position, however, requires only a high school diploma or GED, or "a combination of appropriate education and experience."  Almost all lawyers, however, are not actually qualified for this job, as the position also requires three years of clerical experience, of which two must be in a legal setting.  The salary range ($39,463.00 - $57,643.00) may at the low end overlap the actual current median salary of the law school class of 2010, and is almost certainly higher than the actual current median salary of the class of 2011 (Based on the preliminary data I've seen it seems probable that more than half of the 2011 class is at this moment completely unemployed -- and not just in regard to legal jobs, but in terms of having any job at all).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Morality plays and structural criticism

A 3L said something to me yesterday that I thought was quite perceptive: One of the biggest problems with the current situation is that law schools attract generally risk-averse people who are unknowingly engaging in highly risk-seeking behavior.  People go to law school because they think they're investing a lot of money to insure themselves against under- and unemployment, when in fact a huge percentage of the time they're not buying insurance so much as a lottery ticket.

What percentage of the time is still quite obscure, because we don't have good stats.  Although the Law School Transparency people are doing fantastic work with the data available to them, that data is quite bad.  We don't know the answer within a tolerable degree of accuracy to such basic questions as "what percentage of graduates of ABA-accredited law schools, and of particular schools, have full-time salaried (aka. real) jobs that require a law degree (i.e., law jobs) nine months after graduation, and what do these jobs pay?"  We have even less information about people further down the line, which is actually even more crucial.

For example, if you're considering going to NYU for full boat (this is going to cost you around $250K in tuition and living expenses), wouldn't you like to know what NYU's class of 2006 is doing right now?  How many of the people who got those fabulous $160K jobs with the signing bonuses are still in them?  Nobody knows.  What's the median salary of an NYU grad from the class of 1996, that is, 15 years out? Again, nobody knows.  (An extremely unscientific survey from Forbes, which relies on unsolicited self-reporting by people in private practice, can be found here).  Given what 250K in non-dischargeable debt represents in terms of lifetime risk, these questions are of more than purely academic interest, and it's remarkable that prospective law students continue to fly almost completely blind in regard to them (I realize I'm addressing risk at the least risky spot in the law school hierarchy. The point is that for all we know an NYU law degree might be a bad investment for what would be considered by the powers that be a shockingly high percentage of NYU grads).

Yesterday I was pleased to see Deborah Merritt of the Ohio State University Law School post an extensive and thoughtful comment about the Law School Transparency Petition, which she has signed, and which she is encouraging other law faculty to sign.  I'd like to respond to a couple of her observations.  I of course agree strongly with her that there are good reasons, beyond allowing prospective law students to make good choices, for improving law school transparency. If we don't know what our students are actually doing, especially several years after graduation as opposed to nine months afterwards, how can we make what goes on in law school relevant to our graduates' careers? This has been an under-emphasized point in the LST movement, which has the potential to provide a basis for reforming legal education in several different ways.

I have to disagree with Prof. Merritt's assertion that only a few schools are "cooking" their employment numbers.  In a narrow sense this assertion is probably true (it's unlikely in my opinion that more than a few schools are actually breaking the rules of the game by affirmatively lying about the numbers they report to NALP and USNWR).  But the problem, in my view, is that the game itself cooks the numbers.  A school can report perfectly "accurate" numbers under the current reporting regime, and still give a wildly misleading impression of how many of its graduates are employed in real legal jobs, and what those jobs pay.  That's a structural problem, and it's related to some of Prof. Merritt's observations about tone.

One of the things that's clearly upset a lot of legal academics about this site is that a number of things I've written could be interpreted as launching attacks on the moral integrity of law faculty and administrators as individuals. Now it's not as if questions of individual moral responsibility are irrelevant to the present situation -- they absolutely are relevant, and each person inside the present structure has to decide for his or herself how to answer those questions.  But the notion that the problem is, that as some commenters have asserted, law school administrators are "sociopaths and criminals" is in my view wrongheaded.  That kind of criticism assumes that the scandalous state of the contemporary American law school is a product of bad people being in positions of power. This in turn would seem to entail that the problem could be solved if good people were in those positions instead. It will be seen that this kind of criticism is a mirror image of the defensive reaction of some law faculty -- "we're good people, so how could we be doing the bad things you're attributing to us?" etc.

But the problem isn't the law school faculty and administrators are bad people.  I doubt the overall moral character of people who go into legal education in the first instance has anything at all to do with the present situation. If, for example, law school deans lie a lot more than the average person, that's not because liars become law school deans but because being a law school dean turns you into a liar.  The problem, in other words, is structural.  Complaints about the moral character of law school administrators are like complaints about the moral character of politicians. The problem is the nature of politics, not the nature of politicians.

All of which is to say it would help if people wouldn't take structural criticisms quite so personally.  Hate the game, not the player, as I'm given to understand the kids say.  And changing the game isn't primarily about changing the players -- it's about recognizing that the game, as it's currently structured, almost inevitably puts us all in morally compromising positions.  Again, what we choose to do about that at the individual level is all about individual moral responsibility.  But the fact that the game itself has become rotten isn't any particular person's fault or responsibility.  And that fact in turn is one of the main reasons why it's so difficult to change the game, or indeed to get people within it to even recognize what it has now become.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Petitions and principles

This week I’ll be contacting the administrations of all 200 ABA-accredited law schools, asking them to circulate the Law SchoolTransparency Petition to their faculties.  I’ll keep people apprised of what results this effort yields. 

Literally every law professor I’ve heard address the issue claims to believe that more transparency regarding employment outcomes is imperative, and that the measures the petition advocates, or something much like them, should be adopted.   So why might there still be resistance to signing it? 

In a comment, Partner X has suggested three reasons law faculty might refuse to sign: fear of the reaction they would get from their colleagues, too much loathing of this petition’s source, and actual approval of the status quo.  Additionally, a couple of anonymous commenters have pointed out that some people won’t sign petitions on principle.  That’s true, but it’s worth noting that as of May the faculty of several dozen law schools had voted to sign (that is, they voted to sign collectively as a faculty, not just as individuals, which is a more comprehensive statement than the LSTP asks for) this petition, drafted by Georgetown’s law faculty.   The petition protests a proposal before the ABA’s Section on Legal Education which would merely give ABA-accredited law schools the option of not having an established tenure policy for faculty members, and of employing clinical and legal writing faculty without offering them “a form of security reasonably similar to tenure.”

The rationale for opposing giving law schools this option is, not surprisingly, that the mere existence of such an option would “undermine the quality of legal education.”  The petition also claims adopting the proposal would damage academic freedom and faculty governance, while impeding the struggle to give clinical and legal writing people the same status as tenure track faculty (Not having an established tenure policy for faculty members in general would actually be the easiest and fastest way to give clinical and legal writing people the same status as the rest of the law faculty, but I don’t suppose the people who drafted this petition considered that option. And while tenure is an important component of academic freedom, the proposed change to the ABA rules raises the very good question of why all law schools should be required to be structured, at least in theory, as primarily academic institutions).

Under the present circumstances, in which a massive increase in the cost of legal education has accompanied a sharp decline in the value of a law degree, for law faculty to offer a consumer protection rationale for not allowing law schools to experiment with lower-cost delivery models for legal education is particularly self-serving.  It may be true that the existing ABA standards produce a higher quality of legal education than the average law student would enjoy without them (although there are good reasons to doubt this). Yet it’s also true that if Congress passed the Ricardo Montalban Consumer Protection Act of 2011, requiring all new cars to have rich Corinthian leather interiors, the average quality of new cars would be higher than it would otherwise be – but this certainly isn’t a good reason to mandate leather upholstery in all automobiles.
In addition, to paraphrase Myers McDougal, if you think a good way to enhance academic freedom and faculty self-governance within legal academia is to maintain an absolute regulatory bar to faculties having the freedom to even consider certain alternative structures for legal education, then you have what is called a legal mind.

Lots of law professors may oppose signing petitions on principle -- even a petition advocating something as supposedly uncontroversial as a call for law school administrators to stop cooking the books in regard to employment numbers -- but that principle seems to disappear when there’s some kind of a threat to the guild protections the ABA provides for our jobs. And make no mistake: that’s the main source of the apparently overwhelming opposition to this proposal.

After all, those guild protections are, along with unlimited federally-guaranteed educational loan money, what has allowed law schools to, on average, quadruple tuition (and double faculty salaries) in real terms over the past 25 years, without ever having to justify this mind-boggling cost increase in any other terms than that “a quality legal education is inherently this expensive.”  

One big problem with this argument is that, if it’s true, it means nobody got a quality legal education 25 years ago.  Of course that argument is preposterous on its face. If anything, given advances in information technology, it should be far cheaper to deliver the same quality of legal education today that law students were getting a generation ago – and it would be, if not for the ABA standards. The primary function of those standards isn’t to protect the consumers of legal services, or even the economic interests of attorneys, but to maintain the massively inefficient and unfair monopoly it grants ABA-accredited law schools to determine who will be allowed to become licensed to practice law, and how much it will cost them to do so.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Angry Law School Admissions Guy

This could get very interesting . . .

A lot of law school staff are, especially comparatively speaking. overworked and underpaid. If they've been around for awhile they also tend to know where the bodies are buried.

H/T to a couple of posters for letting me know about it (I have a feeling it won't be the last of this type . . . )

Update :  Angry Law School Admissions Guy seems to have deleted all his posts. Apparently somebody outed him in the wee hours of the morning, and then posted a comment here to announce his "unintentional" accomplishment, along with a warning to anybody else in ALSAG's position about the inherent dangers of trying to remain anonymous on the internet.

Update II:   I strongly encourage people who work inside law schools who have stories they believe should be told to tell them, ideally by blogging themselves, or in the alternative by sending them along to me.  I will of course keep all such communications in the strictest confidence, both in regard to the correspondent's identity and the substance of the message (in other words I won't post anything you don't want posted).

The best defense

One thing that's struck me about the reaction to this little project from legal academics is the almost complete absence of any substantive defense of American legal education in its present form.  Consider this post from Paul Horwitz, which appears to confess under the equivalent of rhetorical torture that signing the Law School Transparency Petition might be worth considering.  Horwitz doesn't like the tone of my posts, which is hardly surprising, but what's remarkable is that his criticism of the substance of this blog adds up to "nothing that Campos is saying is really new." And I'm happy to take quasi-judicial notice of that fact. It's true: lots of people before me -- going back for many decades even -- have pointed out with great eloquence and fervor that law school tends to be intellectually vacuous and teaches people very little about practicing law.  The only new element to this critique is that the combination of the skyrocketing cost of going to law school with the ongoing contraction of the market for high-priced legal services has made the all-too-glaring defects of American legal education much less tolerable to those who are (literally) bearing the costs of those defects.

The "defense" of American legal education, to the extent it exists at all, tends to take the form of a kind of Platonic ideal of pure denial, such as in this anonymous comment to Horwitz's post: "That there are some 'people who feel scammed by law school' does not mean they have actually been scammed, and so far neither Campos nor anyone else has explained why the feelings are justified."  Seriously professor? (I'm guessing this is a law professor -- again, who else can you possibly imagine saying something like that?). 

I was talking to a recent law grad the other day who attended not one but two top tier law schools. He transferred from the first in part because he was shocked by how bad the teaching was, only to discover that his new school was even worse. As an undergraduate he attended a a well-known liberal arts college, and he estimates that 95% of the classes he took there were good to excellent. I asked him how many of his law school classes came up to that standard, and he told me that two had. He said that four-fifths of his classes were complete wastes of time, a few others were pretty poor but very occasionally had moments where something worth learning was touched on, and two were actually good (This is someone with a superb overall academic record, who was on full merit scholarships in both college in law school, and who had substantial law-related work experience before going to law school. He tells me that if law school hadn't been free he would have quit as soon as he realized that, in comparison to his undergraduate experience, it was a bad joke).

Yes, anecdotes are not data, but how many anecdotes have you ever heard from people who thought they got their money's worth from law school in terms of either intellectual value or vocational training? (And I'm talking about people who went to law school before it cost $200,000, in an economy with one new position for every two law school graduates).   I went to what in retrospect was a terrific law school, comparatively speaking, and I had a half dozen good classes in three years.  (I learned next to nothing about practicing law of course). In fact just about the only people who ever seem to have much of a good word for their overall law school experience are law professors. What does that tell you?

Here's a simple, straightforward question for the defenders of the status quo:  Who is willing to defend the proposition that, under current circumstances, the third year of law school is worth the money?  (Recently I ran into an article in the Harvard Law Review from the 1920s pointing out that the third year in particular was a total waste of time, which only seemed to exist because someone had decided that law school should be three years rather than two.)  I'm genuinely curious if anyone in legal academia is willing to step up to the plate on this one.  Because in my experience even the most fervent establishment types will admit that the third year should be dispensed with altogether, or at least transformed into an externship/residency experience of some sort.  That's where we are today: the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the present system pretty much admit that at a minimum a full third of the money and time students are required to invest in that system has no real justification.  And yet these very same people will express deep puzzlement when law graduates with hundreds of thousands of dollars of educational debt and no job prospects report that they "feel scammed by law school."

Friday, September 16, 2011

And now a word from our sponsors

Ken Gormley, the dean of Duquesne Law School, has published an opinion piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the current employment situation for law students.  Here is a summary of his assertions (people should click through to the article itself to evaluate whether I'm being fair to Dean Gormley):

(1) Given the overall state of the economy, it is inappropriate to be particularly concerned about the inability of new law graduates to secure six-figure starting salaries.

(2) Few new law graduates are securing such jobs.

(3) News stories bemoaning (2) are misguided, because it is in fact desirable that few graduates are securing such jobs.

(4) It would be bad for lots of law grads to immediately start making big money, because this would send people the wrong message about why they should go to law school.  Practicing law should not be primarily about making money: "The best reason for a young man or woman to attend law school is the same as it was a century ago: to ably represent fellow citizens and to help the justice system work effectively."

(5) The source of current misunderstandings is the USNWR rankings, which "have encouraged many law schools to fudge numbers to keep up with their 'competitors,' by artificially inflating their statistics."  Indeed, according to Dean Gormley, "several law schools have faced lawsuits and sanctions from the American Bar Association recently for playing fast-and-loose in reporting their statistics."

(6) Several Duquesne graduates have excellent jobs.

(7) These people would never have gotten these jobs if they had chased non-existent pots of gold instead of going to law school.

(8) $60,000 isn't a bad starting salary at all if you're doing socially important work like helping kids and minorities.

(9) One of the best ways to acquire vast riches in the practice of law is to start off making little money at a small firm, gain valuable experience, start one's own firm, and then rake in profits that dwarf the salaries of Ivy League swells.

(10) The key to success in law is to love what you do and work hard at it.  However success should not be measured in monetary terms (although lots of lawyers do in fact make big bucks). It should be measured by the extent  to which graduates contribute to "the effective functioning of the legal system."

(11) Dean Gormley notes at the end of the piece that "we are acutely aware of the onus of student loans in light of the current economic situation. Duquesne Law School has recently increased scholarship funds available to entering law students, so that those who wish to serve others through the practice of law will not be deterred from doing so due to economic barriers."

He concludes with an inspiring observation: "One can call a legal education many things: difficult, costly, rigorous. However, as long as lawyers use their talents to serve others and to bring fairness to our democratic system, obtaining a law degree will never be a bad investment."

A syllabus of the argument:  Feel free to ignore specious complaints about law grads not making enough money to drive a BMW convertible a month after passing the bar. People shouldn't go to law school to make money, but keep in mind that many people who go to law school at non-Ivy League schools like Duquesne do make big money, sometimes at very sexy jobs like being president of the Pittsburgh Steelers [those of a skeptical disposition might want to check out the biography of this eminent graduate], although probably not right away.  The reason why there's a problem with misleading placement statistics is because some schools fudge their numbers, but they're being punished by the judicial system and the ever-vigilant ABA. A starting salary of $60,000 is pretty good for socially important work.  For some unspecified reason law school debt has become a problem, but Duquesne is addressing this by offering scholarships, which will allow people to take lower-paying but socially valuable jobs.  Law school is hard and costs a lot but produces so much social goodness that it's literally impossible for it to ever be a bad investment.

A lot of things could be said about this, but I'll mention just a couple.  First, Dean Gormley's argument is fantastically dishonest from beginning to end.  Almost every single substantive assertion in it is either a flat-out lie or at best a grotesque distortion or oversimplification.   What can one say about a law school dean at a lower-tier school who, at this particular moment, has the sheer chutzpah to argue that there's nothing wrong at all with a $60,000 starting salary for doing public interest work?  Let me spell it out: THERE ARE NO JOBS LIKE THAT FOR ALMOST ANYONE NOW --and certainly not for Duquesne graduates. (The $60K figure was of course taken from a reporter's story, which in turn was lifted from the phony NALP numbers, which claim, absurdly, that the median starting salary for 2010 law grads was $63K.)

I was asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter yesterday if there's still a problem, given that prospective law students are surely aware that the real employment numbers don't look anything like what law school's advertise them as being.  This question reflects the characteristic blindness of the elites (Scads of law professors are rationalizing the current situation by saying exactly the same thing right now, and they probably believe it too. This is what's going on every time some law professor points out that "The students are not blameless").  What this misses is that the average 21-year-old considering law school isn't reading the WSJ law blog, or this blog, or even Above the Law. He or she is looking at USNWR and the ABA guide, and the kid's parents are reading this kind of outrageous nonsense in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and how in the hell are they supposed to figure out this is nothing but a pack of egregious lies? Am I being "uncivil"? Do my learned colleagues think that's an "unfair" characterization of this op-ed? Then let just one of them defend one word of what this sinverguenza (look it up, it's le mot juste) is saying.

Second, how can words in any language convey adequately the sheer shamelessness of the argument that the problem with law school employment statistics is that a few bad apples out there are fudging the numbers? That is almost the precise opposite of the truth: The problem is that the official ABA-certified numbers bear no relation to reality.  Has Dean Gormley read the complaints in the current suits against three law schools for advertising fraudulent employment stats? I have, and they say nothing about how these schools doing anything differently than any other ABA-accredited school in regard to how they report the employment status of their graduates. In fact I guarantee you that's going to be their primary defense: they can't have committed fraud, because if they had, that would mean every single law school in the country has committed fraud and that can't be the case because . . .

I could go on and on, but instead I'm just going to post a comment that was put on this blog a couple days ago, in an older thread, which most readers probably missed.  I would pay a lot of money to watch this person cross-exam Dean Gormley under oath. I sincerely hope she (or someone) gets the chance to do so soon.

No matter how much the word gets out, apparently, it's still not enough. I have to think that, or else I don't understand the comments that deride the professor for 'assuming' that the horrible job market, the massive debt, the hopelessness of not being able to succeed in his profession and the destruction of his dreams [contributed] to Alex's death.

For those that think the professor is presumptuous for suggesting that such factors contributed to his death, you must lead a comfortable, little life, safely insulated from the recession and failure. You obviously do not know what it's like to have invested 10 years of your life to a goal that you now find out you will never reach.

You obviously don't know what it's like to have spent $150,000 to reach that goal, knowing now that you will never reach it. Note that that's not the costs of starting up your own business - it's the cost of starting up FIVE businesses - and failing, with nothing, not even experience to show for it.

You obviously don't know what it's like to painstakingly learn and stay up night after night, learning how, under enormous pressure to read, write, think, and conduct trials like a lawyer, when all that ended up being a waste of time, because you can never be one. Remembering the times when you were tired, wanted to quit - to give in, and you didn't, but that you still ended up losing anyway.

You must not know what it's like to have gone to great lengths to make something better of yourself ($150,000!) only to now realize that your day is comprised of "would you like to try that on in the dressing room?" You must not know what it's like to have a 22 year old manage you and look down on you - a 22 year old who never got an education - because she thinks you must be really stupid to have to work a $7.50 an hour retail job at your age.

And dammit, you did everything - everything you could - on a national team, on the Dean's List, an Honor's Scholar, graduated cum laude, sacrificed every last penny ($150,000!), spent months, hours every day to study for the bar (You gave EVERYTHING to take that bar - it took you half a year to come up with the money!), you worked while studying - to avoid that Wall-Mart but it was all in vain, because you will be working there the rest of your life. And asking yourself every night, "Why did I do it?" And having society look down upon you: those in the legal profession because you couldn't get in, and those not in the profession because they think education is a waste of time (and they are right.)

I envy those people who cannot see or even wonder whether those factors influenced Alex's life and death. I envy you, because you do not have to live with what so many of us have to face every day.

I, too, like Alex wanted to work in public interest. And I too, like Alex, wasted my whole life trying to do so. And now, I have to look forward to Wall-Mart every day ("Would you like to try that on in the dressing room, ma'am?")and cater to my customers, most who didn't get an education but who are much better off economically than I am and will ever be. Customers who look down on me and think I'm stupid for not getting an education or think I'm stupid for getting one, or just plain think I'm stupid for working as a sales girl at Wall-Mart.

In another life, I was something else. Every day, I try to remember what it was like when people actually asked my opinion - asked me to think. Now, they don't want me to think. My days are comprised of "would you like to try that on in a dressing room, Ma'am?" said with a phony smile while I cry on the inside at the lost opportunity.) And why all this? Because I got a legal education - the worst mistake of my life. And worst of all, knowing that my dream - to be a public interest attorney - the reason I did it all, sacrificed - is dead. Maybe it never existed.

Sign the Law School Transparency Petition.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Law School Transparency Petition

If you work at a law school, attended one, or currently attend one, please consider signing this letter:

"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 or employer, if applicable
Law school attended and year of graduation, if applicable

*Institutional and employer affiliations are for identification purposes only

If you would like to sign the letter, send an email to:


(1) This letter will not be published, nor will the identities of any signers be disclosed, until at least 100 current law faculty at ABA-accredited schools have signed it.  This number represents little more than one percent of the tenured faculty at such schools. I will give occasional updates on how many signatures have been collected from law faculty, employed lawyers, law graduates, and current law students.

(2)  People have made several excellent suggestions about what else such a letter might contain, such as demands that tuition be frozen or reduced, and that law schools collect and publish meaningful information about their graduates' levels of satisfaction with their law school experience.  Although there are advantages to addressing these issues in a single petition, I believe that the initial effort should focus on the issue around which there is clearly the most consensus.  Thanks to everyone for their input.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The first rule of Fight Club

One of the few legal academics who writes things that I have read voluntarily is a guy who 20 years ago was publishing scorched earth critiques in prominent law journals about the uselessness of doctrinal legal scholarship, the intellectual stultification of the typical law school classroom, the mind-numbing awfulness of legal practice in general and of being an associate in a big firm in particular, etc. etc. etc.  He was an angry young man then, and got some attention from his elders, although even back in the day he was already considered to be "merely" rehashing the cls critique of the 1970s and early 1980s. This is how legal scholarship works by the way:

Angry young man: My path-breaking scholarship published in the top legal journals demonstrates conclusively that law school is at best an unnecessarily expensive waste of time and at worst a seriously brain-damaging ripoff.

Legal academic establishment: That's fascinating but it has already been demonstrated many times. But please do continue in this vein if you're so inclined.

In other words, in the context of something like legal academia -- that is, in the context of a fundamentally anti-intellectual and anti-vocational exercise in ideological legitimation and social sorting -- pointing out that legal academia is an intellectual and vocational joke just becomes part of an ongoing punchline. Criticizing something on the basis of standards that aren't applied to itself by the enterprise you're criticizing is as a practical matter a waste of time, which is why the still-angry no-longer-young professor's copious body of very well done critical scholarship has had exactly zero effect on the objects of his criticism.

Which raises the question of what exactly angry young men (and women) ought to be doing these days, besides writing law review articles that by their very nature are guaranteed to have exactly zero effect on anything.  (I want to be clear on this point so I'll repeat it: Scholarship can have real-world effects within a social context that takes the idea of scholarship seriously, that is, which acknowledges the possibility that the achievement of certain insights could then actually require somebody to do something. Legal academia is at present not that sort of social context.)

Speaking of which in a couple of comment threads it's been suggested that somebody who holds the views I now hold ought to quit his job, or at least consider doing so.  I think this is a valid issue to raise, although of course it's the kind of claim that is often made strategically, in order to shut down dissent. Several people have responded to this claim by pointing out that whistle blowing would never get far if whistle blowers listened to similar advice.  And that's true. Still it seems rather odd to characterize this blog as involved in any sort of real whistle blowing.  Almost everything I've said has been a matter of very public knowledge, after all.  It's not as if the inadequacies of the law school classroom and of legal scholarship were exactly state secrets (see our angry young man above and his many predecessors et. seq.).  The skyrocketing cost of legal education, the salaries and teaching loads of law faculty, the contraction of the job market, the unhappiness of lawyers, and by now even the techniques by which law schools cooked their all-too-obviously phony employment numbers are also largely matters of public record.

The only things I've said on this blog that could be considered whistle blowing in even a loose sense are a few comments on the work habits of legal academics, which is really a very marginal matter in the context of the present disaster.  (After all who cares if the average law professor "works hard?"  If you were to get served a long series of lousy meals at an expensive restaurant would you care how hard the chef did or didn't work? Indeed if the meal represents the chef's most honest effort that's only a better reason for firing him, since working harder at his craft obviously isn't going to do any good. Unfortunately for fancy restaurants that serve bad food at high prices there's no accrediting agency requiring people to keep eating there so they can stay in business).

The whistle blowing element of this blog has almost nothing to do with revealing hidden information.  It's perceived as whistle blowing because, given the deeply hierarchical nature of the legal system in general and legal academia in particular, matters of public knowledge in a sense don't really count until somebody in a position of "authority" repeats them. (It was on the tip everybody's tongue. I just gave it a name).  Now as authority figures go I'm far from ideal: it would be better if I were at an elite school, or if I were a dean, or best of all if I were both, but for reasons that are too obvious to belabor the higher up somebody is in the hierarchy the less likely they are to call any aspect of it into question (Imagine Duncan Kennedy as dean of HLS. Imagine Richard Posner on the SCOTUS. And so on).  But still, I'm a tenure track law professor at a, for now at least, "first-tier" school who is pointing out that what the scam bloggers are saying is true, which in this business is pretty much the equivalent of Emma Goldman getting elected president of the Greenwich Junior League.

So one justification for continuing to cash my paycheck is that it's valuable to have somebody who knows what everybody already knows, but who is in a position to have it taken more seriously because people in his position never say what everybody already knows, to say it while staying in that position, as opposed to being a "disgruntled" former law professor saying the kind of stuff that disgruntled people can be expected to say. (I should add that a significant factor in all this is that the scam elements of law school have gotten much worse over the course of my career, and in addition I have only slowly allowed myself to become fully aware of them. I don't think I could have done what I'm doing now for the past 20 years, although I suppose I'm going to find out).

Another is that, in an admittedly minor way, I remain in a better position to exhort people inside the business to change the way we do things.  And I'm trying to do that.  Let's get practical, shall we?

Step One:  Demand that your school release its real employment numbers, now.

Step Two:  Demand that your school do what's necessary, now, to freeze or better yet roll back tuition.

My eyes are open.  Are yours?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A lawyer's story

Alex, as I will call him, was a student I remembered.  One thing I'm particularly bad at is remembering students' names, but actually I'm not very good at remembering students at all.  There are so many of them, and we law faculty have so little idea of what ends up happening to almost all of them (That's not true in your case of course. Let the record reflect that you stay in touch with large numbers of your ex-students and keep close tabs on how their lives and careers are progressing, while I am a self-absorbed egomaniac projecting my inadequacies onto the many thoughtful, warm and caring law professors out there.)

But I remembered Alex.  He took three of my classes, and while he never talked much, he was the kind of student who, when he said something, let one know that he was getting what one was trying to get people to get, which is to say something that they couldn't get by just reading the material (you would be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't, by how many law school classes can go by without anyone on either side of the podium experiencing this sensation).

I even remember the paper he wrote in one class of about 50 students. It had stood out enough that after the grades were in I checked to see who had written it, because again it was the kind of thing one hopes for when setting a paper topic.  In class Alex didn't display the superficial shoot from the hip faux-brilliance of many a successful law student: he was deeper and more thoughtful than that.  Later, I was surprised to learn he was only 25 when he graduated; I would have guessed he was several years older, in the best sense of the word.

Over the years, he came to my office to talk three or four times.  It was always about something that had come up in class, that related in some unexpected and interesting way to the work he was doing.  The work he was doing was immigration law, which he cared about in a kind of focused way that stood in sharp contrast to the aimless drifting of so many "maybe I should just go to law school" types (I had very much been one of those myself, so I'm intimately familiar with the syndrome).  Colorado is a good place to do this kind of work, in the sense that it's home to many people, mostly of Mexican background, who are in various states of ambiguous residency from a legal point of view. Of course most of these people have no money, and so providing them with legal services is a challenge even in the best of times, which, given that Alex graduated from law school in 2009, in a country which finds the idea that poor people (or for that matter middle class people) should have access to legal representation too ridiculous to even bother debating, was not something that he ever came close to seeing.

In law school, Alex had done everything right. Besides getting good grades, he had taken all the right clinics, and done all the right summer internships (he won a fellowship from a national law firm to fund one of them) that someone who wanted to do what he wanted to do should have done.  He had, when he graduated, about as good a resume as it was possible for a graduate of our law school to have, for someone who wanted to do the work he came to law school to do.

It wasn't enough.  Alex wanted to do public interest law with an emphasis on immigration issues -- a job for which there is at this moment a crying need in the state of Colorado.  But there's no money for that kind of thing, so there are no jobs.  So he tried to make a go of setting up his own shop with a friend, another 2009 grad, doing a kind of hybrid of private immigration and criminal law that it's possible, at least in theory, to do in places along the Front Range that are less insulated from reality than beautiful Boulder.  He had only been at it for a few months when one fine spring morning we got an email from the dean's office, letting us know that Alex had died, a year and a day after his graduation from the law school. He was 26 years old.

I had a horrible feeling when I read that email.  For several weeks I couldn't find the courage to ask anyone in a position to know what had, as they say, "happened," but when I finally did I got the answer I knew I was going to get.

Suicide is rarely a simple thing.  The precise reasons why Alex killed himself will never be known -- I made a few inquiries, but I quickly became disgusted with the journalistic imperative to remind other people of their sorrows which is always part of getting to the bottom of this kind of story.  I never got anywhere close to there, but I did find out enough to learn it would be far too simple to say Alex killed himself because the dreams he had for his career didn't seem to be on the road to working out, and that he had spent four years of his time and talents, and a very large amount of money (we nearly doubled tuition between the time Alex applied for admission and when he graduated) in a fruitless pursuit of those dreams.  It seems to have been much more complicated than that. 

But I don't think we helped.  For mostly avoidable reasons, law school and the thought of everything after produces depression and something like despair in many of the people who undergo it, even in the best of times, which again obviously these are not.  I liked Alex a great deal, I thought well of him, and I even helped him learn a few things worth learning, but in the end I could do nothing for him -- or rather I took part in a process that, it seems, led him down a path that ended in a very dark place.

This blog -- this useless gesture which will change nothing, because nothing ever changes -- is among other things a payment for my indifference to many problems, and many people, I should have cared more about.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Lottery in Babylon

Well I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus
                      Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

Part of the function of this blog is confessional, so I will begin with a confession.  When, five weeks ago, some of the first comments on this blog referred to IBR I did not know what those initials stood for.  How ridiculous is that?  And how sobering is it to consider that if someone like me didn't know, how many law faculty at this moment do you suppose are even aware of the existence of Income Based Repayment?  (I"m pretty sure all the deans know what it is though).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Caveat emptor and law school employment numbers

I take for my text this morning Luke 17:2:

It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.

This is a warning about the uniquely wicked character the already grievous sin of betrayal of trust takes on when it involves taking advantage of the innocent and naive. This moral judgment is reflected by the criminal law, in statutes that provide increased punishment for those who abuse their positions of trust or authority to harm especially vulnerable victims, such as children or the elderly.

Several readers of this blog, including a couple of legal academics, have emailed me to argue that I haven't put enough emphasis on how the legal academic establishment's continued willingness to advertise essentially phony placement numbers ought to be considered a genuine public scandal.  And on reflection I believe I have become prone to a  form of mistaken belief that anyone who becomes knowledgeable about a particular subject always risks falling into. That belief is that the general level of knowledge regarding the subject in question is much higher than it actually is.

In brief, it's easy to fall into the mistake of thinking that because one has become intimately familiar with how deceptive law school placement stats are, and because there has now been some mainstream media coverage of this issue, and because anyone who googles "law school employment numbers" will find those stories, along with a bunch of furious scam blogs addressing this issue in the bluntest possible terms, it follows that prospective law students are not likely to be fooled by those numbers. It's merely another step from that assumption to the belief that people who are reckless enough to borrow six figures of non-dischargeable debt to go law school, and especially a non-elite law school, in some sense "deserve" the fate that most probably awaits them.

But for several reasons these beliefs and assumptions are unrealistic.  First, I think it's difficult to overstate the extent to which law schools abuse their cultural privilege when they mislead prospective students about the actual job numbers.  As incredible as it may seem to those of us who see the sausage being made every day, it appears your average 20-year-old who is considering taking the LSAT in the next year or so actually expects law schools not to lie to him or her about this all-important issue.  This expectation is a product of among other things the great lengths to which law schools go to present themselves as bastions of disinterested rectitude and servants of the public good.

Consider the following real-life example.  Last spring, the dean of a certain law school authorized the school's public relations person (that law schools now employ PR people ought to give all those naive 20-year-olds a helpful hint all by itself) to distribute a press release, which as a consequence of the economic necessities that govern contemporary journalism was then transformed into a "news story" by the "reporter" who attached her byline to it before reprinting it. This story claimed that the nine-month employment rate for the school's graduates was nearly 90%.   Now this claim wasn't true even if one employed the statistical chicanery (counting all jobs as legal jobs etc.) that law schools use to generate their phony numbers. But leave that aside.  If a prospective law student read that "nearly nine out of ten graduates were employed within nine months, according to the law school," what would be the reasonable inference for that person to make?

I submit the answer is that this person would assume nearly nine out of ten graduates had gotten real legal jobs (permanent full-time employment requiring a law degree).  Would it occur to the average 20-year-old that "employed" meant in many cases "employed at Starbucks or Home Depot?"  Unless the average 20-year-old is someone who assumes that institutions with the cultural prestige of law schools ought to be treated as being as reliable as unsolicited emails from Nigerian former oil ministers looking to transfer millions of dollars into their correspondents' bank accounts, the answer would seem to be "of course not."  And in fact at the time the law school's administration caused these statements to appear in the media, it was well aware that less than half of the previous year's graduating class had real legal jobs, even defined generously.

In other words, the law school's representations -- which we should note were completely gratuitous claims that didn't even have the benefit of the standard excuse of "this is how the ABA/NALP/USNWR reports the information it gathers from us" -- were fraudulent. Now I am quite certain that the law school's dean would have been shocked to the very core of his being if anyone had told him to his face "You are committing a fraud on the public.  You are inducing relatively vulnerable and naive persons to give you very large amounts of money under false pretenses."  You see, that simply could not be the case, because the dean was a man of enormous personal integrity, as all his many friends and admirers would be happy to inform you.  The statement "you are committing a serious fraud on vulnerable people" would have struck him, I'm quite sure, as being equivalent to the statement "you are a brain in a vat and the external world is an illusion." That is, he would have understood the statement as a purely theoretical possibility, which had no possible relevance to the actual state of affairs in the real world: the world in which this man of impeccable personal rectitude was being paid nearly $400,000 per year to perform an undeniably valuable public service.

The nasty old common law doctrine of caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") held that sellers were under no obligation to disclose any facts about the things they were selling to prospective buyers.  But even that doctrine, which has since been rejected by all kinds of consumer protection laws, did not allow sellers to affirmatively misrepresent or fraudulently conceal material facts about the things they were selling. You could omit to inform a buyer that the roof of your house leaked, but you could not lie to him if he asked you about it, let alone were you allowed to claim to prospective buyers before they even asked about it that your house had a water-proof roof.

To anyone who has taken the time to investigate the subject, it's obvious that the standard practices of law schools regarding their employment numbers fail to leap even this low bar.  To any law professor who happens to be reading this, let me pose a question: Have you done anything at all to signal to your school's administration, or even to your colleagues, that you find this situation unacceptable? And if you haven't the explanation for why not had better not be, "prospective law students should know better." Why should they know better? Because we live in the fantasy world where Econ 101 is taken as a literal description of reality, and everyone is dutifully gathering information about the "arm's length" transactions they're engaging in, on the road to the rational maximization of their utility?  In the end that's nothing but blaming the victim.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Well I could have been in Econ but I wound up here

Joni Hersch and W. Kip Viscusi, a pair of Vanderbilt Law School professors, are publishing a paper, "Law and Economics as a Pillar of Legal Education," which features an argument for why law schools should hire people with doctorates, and in particular doctorates in Economics (such hiring practices correlate with both higher law school rank, and  higher citation rates for law faculty publications), and also advertises the existence of Vanderbilt's five-year old joint J.D./Ph.D. program in law and econ.   On one level their argument is a fairly harmless exercise in academic empire-building, but on another the paper features all sorts of information of interest to those of us concerned the ongoing slow-motion collapse of the current delivery model for legal education in America.

Friday, September 9, 2011

If you're not part of the solution

This blog is now a month old, and the responses to it in legal academia, after a predictable flurry of blustering outrage from an obsessive freak or two, have been somewhat encouraging. For one thing, I've encountered surprisingly little in the way of attempts to minimize the problems it's addressing.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A note on starting salaries at big firms

Since there's a lot of discussion of the issue in this morning's thread, here's some historical data on the so-called "going rate" in New York City (The process by which national firms started paying NYC salaries to first year associates in other cities was long and convoluted).  I'll also list the median household income in the US in that year.  All figures are in 2010 dollars.

1957:  Going rate in NYC: $41K.  Covington and Burling in DC was the highest paying firm in the country, starting associates at $49K.   Median household income in the US was $37K.

1967:  Going rate in NYC: $65K.  Cravath caused much hand-wringing about Kids Today by bumping that to $74K the following year.  Median household income was $48K.

1977: Going rate in NYC was $100K. ($70K in LA and $85K in DC).   Median household income was $47K.

1987: Going rate in NYC was $123K.  Cravath had again moved the market in a big way in the previous year, when the going rate had been $102K.  Median household income was $48.5K.

1997:  Going rate in NYC was $116K, although SCOTUS  clerks and similar Advanced Life Forms were getting $136K.  Median household income was $51K.

2005:  Going rate in NYC was $138K. Median household income was $53K.  In the fall Cravath bumped it to $160K in 2010 dollars, and here we are  today. (Median household income has fallen to $49.7K).

Obviously the huge run-up was in the quarter century from the late 50s to the mid 80s, when starting salaries at top NYC firms essentially tripled in real terms, even though national household income was basically flat for all but the first few years of that time period (and has remained flat since.).  The growth in associate salaries in the 25 years since has been comparatively modest. Note that until the sudden bump at the tail end of the housing bubble associate salaries were only about 10% higher than they had been nearly 20 years earlier. (Partner compensation is another story altogether).

And of course law school tuition has increased by a factor of three to five times since the mid-1980s.  To put it another way, 25 years ago three years of private law school tuition equaled 35% of the going rate. Today it's just under 100%.  Public law school tuition has gone from 8% of the going rate to 35%. Increasingly, it seems like the goal of many of those among the tiny percentage of law graduates who get big firm jobs is to live like monks for five years, while clocking insane hours doing mind-numbing work, simply in order to pay off their law school debt.  And then?  (It appears that the days of big firms making concerted efforts to "place" their departing associates are mostly gone.)

Conglomerate and scam blogs

Conglomerate, a business law blog, is doing a forum today and tomorrow on scam blogs and related topics.

More fun with law school employment numbers

Jason Dolin, an Ohio attorney who is an adjunct law professor at Capital University, has just published an article in the Ohio Lawyer that digs into the employment statistics for the class of 2010 at Ohio's five public law schools nine months after graduation (unfortunately it appears you have to be a member of the Ohio bar to access the article on line).  Dolin filed public records requests with the schools, and the information he gathered is eye-opening in various ways.  Here I'll focus on the data released to him by Ohio State (a first-tier school) and Toledo (an unranked, aka fourth-tier school).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Additional disclosures

I had an interesting conversation today with a young law professor, who has been on the tenure-track faculty of a lower-ranked law school for a couple of years.  She's deeply disturbed by how schools continue to hide the ball about the employment situation, by the more nonsensical features of law school pedagogy (she has taught in other academic settings, and is especially appalled by how law schools evaluate their students), and by the ridiculous publication system for legal academic work.  She's of the view that for reasons of both economic necessity and simple justice law professors need to teach more and get paid less -- a position which almost all her colleagues find deeply puzzling, if not actually insane (Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it").

Right now she's struggling with how much if any of this she should share with her students, either inside the classroom (when discussing, say, the doctrine of caveat emptor, certain examples from the world of contemporary legal education might be said to leap to mind) or out of it.  I was impressed with her sense of ethical obligation -- she told me she would much rather not get tenure than mislead her students -- and by the extent to which she had yet to be co-opted by the usual forces that crush dissent in the law school world.

I didn't have much in the way of useful advice, other than to exhort her to continue to be a teacher attempting to convey the truth as she sees it, rather than allowing herself to be transformed into a salesperson pushing product for the organization that employs her.  The conversation raised questions in my mind about what exactly we -- that is, those legal faculty who don't have their heads in the sand -- ought to be telling our students right now.  One thing that seems clear is that law faculty have an obligation to educate themselves, to the extent they can, about their graduates' actual employment status (Faculty will have much better access to this information than anyone outside law schools, although I don't doubt many a law school's administration will resist sharing this data even with its own faculty).

When, for example, a student asks you at the end of his first year about whether he ought to continue with his legal education, it's difficult to give grounded advice if you don't know the answer to such basic questions as how many of the school's graduates are getting real legal jobs, and what they're being paid. In my experience at present almost no law faculty can answer this question with anything more than the roughest of guesses -- I certainly couldn't have even a year ago.  (In addition one piece of information that it would be good for every law professor to have is, how many recent alumni are eligible for IBR? The ABA could eliminate much of the employment disclosure scandal by simply requiring law schools to report this figure, which can be determined for any individual graduate in about 30 seconds).

A more difficult question is how to deal with what might be called psychic costs and benefits of being a lawyer.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that most law professors don't know much about the practice of law.  For understandable reasons, people tend to focus on how this is a problem for reform efforts aimed at making law school a more practical vocational experience.  But this fact also raises another problem, captured well by this commentator:

It is really difficult to talk someone out of going to law school. Everything about law school sounds great in theory. It seems prestigious. Many prospective students make up fantasies in their minds about what a JD will do for them. The law schools' websites and promotional materials are very effective at confirming whatever fantasy a prospective student has about the utility of a JD.

Law schools existences depend upon enrolling as many people as possible who have no real idea of what practicing law is like. As long as 0Ls have stars in their eyes about "doing international law" (whatever the hell that is) or "using their JD to passionately advocate on behalf of X group of people," they will continue to enroll. Every law school is more than happy to do its part to keep these fantasies alive until the 0L has signed on the dotted line and taken their seat in their 1L class. 

I think the best way to discourage potential law school scam victims is to do as much as possible to enlighten them as to what a JD can actually be used for and what practicing law is really like. I suppose there is a tendency to soften blows, and try to gently talk people out of things. With law school, I think the harsh, unpleasant approach is the way to go. Explain what its like to deal with idiotic political hack judges and deranged clients who think that a $2,000 retainer creates a period of indentured servitude. Explain doc review and the biglaw pyramid. Explain that there are very few warm, romantic situations in which an attorney is able to come to the rescue of a deserving client.
Maybe the easiest way to give a real world example of what its like to practice law would be to provide all prospective students with the Additional Disclosures booklet that comes with most credit card offers in the mail. Have them read the entire booklet carefully and completely. Then let them know that practicing law will involve reading that booklet 5-7 days a week for 8-15 hours a day.
This raises what in the end is a much more difficult issue regarding the disclosure obligations of law faculty than that created by the phony employment numbers schools continue to publish (the latter problem can be addressed adequately by adopting something like the recommendations put forth by the Law School Transparency project).  What, after all, are we supposed to say to students about the copious evidence that very large numbers of lawyers really hate their jobs, because the practice of law often involves an insidious combination of boredom and stress?  I mean besides, "I can't tell you much about that because I'm not really a lawyer, thank G-d."

For some reason this all brings to mind the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's comment that being a philosophy professor was an "absurd job" and "a kind of living death."  (According to his friend Norman Malcolm Wittgenstein also thought that universities "stifled original philosophical thought, and made it difficult to be a decent human being."  As a consequence he urged his students to take up useful work instead, such as farming or medicine, and was always delighted when they didn't pursue academic careers in philosophy).

We can't all be Wittgenstein, who in addition to being a genius took practical ethics seriously enough that he gave away all of his immense fortune after reading Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief.  But we can try to be honest with ourselves and others. That, under the current circumstances, is a daunting enough challenge.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Getting the word out

One valuable side effect of this little blog project is that in the 30 days of its existence it's generated nearly 2000 comments from people located in all sorts of places within the American legal system, as well as a few from commentators from other legal systems, and other professions.  Many of these comments add real-life perspective to the often abstract arguments in the posts (to reverse an infamous formula, a half million ruined careers is only a statistic, while each individual story is a tragedy).  The comments can also work as a kind of informal clearinghouse of information for prospective law students and their families, who we can only hope are taking advantage of the recent explosion of on-line information regarding the costs and benefits of going to law school.

Given the propensity of our culture to turn fundamentally structural social problems into personal morality tales, I'm somewhat surprised that there have been very few comments along these lines:

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day Special: The Second-Best Job in America

A commentator flagged this piece, which appeared last week in something called 24/7 Wall St.  The data it purports to present actually understates massively the perks of this thing of ours. Consider the claim that "law professors have a median income approaching $100,000, and have a top range of nearly $150,000."  Well . .

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Law school cost, educational quality, and Felix Frankfurter's street car

A few years ago I was at a Colorado Bar Association annual meeting at which the guest of honor was a certain SCOTUS justice known for his remarkably high opinion of himself.  While there, I was told that, when the luminary of the local bar who was taking the justice from the airport to the mountain resort where the meeting was held showed up in a new SUV to pick up his guest, the justice balked at the idea that his legal personage should be conveyed in this fashion, and insisted that a limousine be sent for the purpose.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Law school v. Business School et. al.

Dave Zaring, a professor at the Wharton business school, has responded to this blog with some potential partial defenses of the current law school model, based mainly on a comparison to other professional schools.

First, he asserts that complaints that what law school teaches is largely irrelevant to practice are very similar to complaints about business schools, divinity schools, schools of government and education, etc.  He notes that the only medical schools escape these complaints, and suggests that modeling all other professional schools on the medical school model is both impractical and undesirable.

One thing this blog apparently hasn't emphasized enough is that I'm not claiming that the dysfunctions of law schools are somehow unique in the otherwise well-functioning world of higher education.  Higher education in America right now -- and not just at professional schools -- is a mess.  More than anything else it is, in the words of one of my favorite academics, the mechanism by which "the entitled become the credentialed."  If, as several people have suggested to me, the MBA is becoming as big a ripoff, comparatively speaking, as the JD (I should note I know nothing about business schools), then that fact, if it is a fact, has relevance to how long law schools can continue along their present path as an economic matter, but has no relevance at all to the need to reform that path.

Zaring then points to the case of graduate creative writing programs:

There’s a lot of new law schools out there.  But you know what graduate programs have been expanding even faster?  Creative writing programs.  Seriously (184 today, up from 15 in 1975).  Those programs prepare you for nothing other than low paid teaching jobs, and they’re doing fine.  If law school is a scam, what are the avidly consumed creative writing programs providing?  Campos and other law school critics might try to get their heads around the MFA explosion before indicting the law school one in isolation.  It could be that students get something out of graduate school other than guaranteed jobs - indeed, you might even say there is a market for "useless" post-graduate education in the United States.
This is an interesting comparison, although in some ways an obviously inapt one.  No one goes into an MFA program intending to make lots of money. Indeed it's notable that such programs never focus on producing successful genre writers -- i.e., the next Stephen King or John Grisham -- but are rather dedicated almost exclusively to literary fiction.  Nor, as far as I know, do MFA programs engage in industry-wide placement stat deception.  (Unlike business schools I know something about these programs because my best friend and his wife are graduates of one).  The biggest distinction between law schools and MFA programs goes to the crucial issue of what economists call psychic income.  Lots of people grow up hoping to write the Great American Novel.  Nobody grows up hoping to one day be Henry Kravis's water carrier on a big M&A deal.  People go to law school, with occasional exceptions,  in order to acquire a respectable and well-paid career. MFA programs cater to peoples' dreams. Law school is where dreams go to die (Yes I'm generalizing).

And even if we assume that many or most MFA programs are bad deals for those who invest in them, this again hardly constitutes a defense of either MFA programs or law schools. Zaring's observes that "you might even say there is a market for 'useless' post-graduate education in the United States," and indeed you might -- but we should question whether the word "market" in these sorts of statements is doing the amount of redemptive work many market-based normative social theories seem to believe it's doing.  

Zaring can't resist building a bit of a straw man when he argues that while it's clear law schools aren't perfectly efficient at pricing their services, "surely they're not totally inefficient?"  Well of course they're not. The whole question is how efficient or inefficient are they right now.  Zaring points out that a JD from Yale is probably still a good deal, and he implies that bottom tier schools could be a good deal if they stripped themselves down to a "no frills" model that would cost "only" 20K a year in tuition (it's a sign of how out of control costs have become that this "no frills" model is hardly less expensive than the Harvard Law School was in real dollars 25 years ago, and far more expensive than the average law school of that time, including the average private school. 25 years ago average private law school tuition was under 15K in 2011 dollars, while public resident tuition was about 3.5K).   But there's an enormous gap between Yale and the "bottom tier."  I get emails every day from people who graduated with good grades from top 25 schools and don't have legal jobs. Yes the plural of anecdote is not data. Well the data -- even in the distorted and heavily massaged form in which law schools release it -- is terrible.

Finally Zaring asks if law schools are such academically dubious enterprises, why do all research universities want them? (Except for Princeton interestingly. What's the matter with Princeton?)  This seems to me to be a bit of a naive question for a business school professor to ask.  His answer -- that law schools make universities look good because "law professors are pretty smart" and generate so much "academic energy" that they're resented by other faculty members -- strikes me as highly implausible (again, a business school professor might consider that professors with actual PhDs in the humanities and social sciences might resent resent law school professors for reasons having little to do with a sense of intellectual inferiority).

Ultimately Zaring is right to highlight that all sorts of critical questions can be asked of other parts of the university besides law schools.  And he's also right that the continuing strong demand for JD degrees (a new law school opened in Nashville this week and another is opening in Fort Wayne next fall) says something compelling about the market for this particular service.  I suspect that what it says, however, is something more disturbing than Zaring's glass half-full perspective suggests.